The defense often gets short shrift in these rundowns, taking a back seat to the offense, so we're going to flip things around a bit and go through coordinator Tony Gibson's side of the ball before analyzing Dana Holgorsen's troops. With a number of returning players, the D is expected to be a force for the Mountaineers this year, but there are still some areas of concern to be addressed. We'll start up front with the defensive line.
Thirteen players are listed on the pre-spring depth chart, but of those, only six have played a live snap for West Virginia. Leading the pack is senior Kyle Rose, who delivered on a promise to make effort a watchword for the team after it gave up a couple of years ago in losses to Kansas and Iowa State. A tough veteran who provides leadership in a variety of ways, Rose is a grinder who can play any position up front, but figures to be inside again at the nose position. Behind him, junior Darrien Howard and massive redshirt freshman Dontae Angus could finally give the Mountaineers respectable depth at the position without the need to swap players between then end and nose positions.
Redshirt juniors Christian Brown and Noble Nwachukwu are, like Rose, steady if unspectacular performers at defensive end, with Eric Kinsey also available to provide depth. Junior college transfer Larry Jefferson will get his first chance to show his ability against Division I opposition, and will have the opportunity to at least fill the role Shaquille Riddick did in 2014. Redshirt sophomore Jon Lewis also returns in a backup role, while redshirt freshmen Tyree Owens and Jaleel Fields, along with Angus, will have their first shots at playing time.
At nose, Rose had 35 tackles (a solid number for that spot) but managed just one TFL. The hope for him is to improve his push and ability to get into the backfield a few more times, the better to disrupt plays. Howard had four tackles in eight games, and clearly has to show that he is ready to play at least 15-20 snaps in every game, and not just be a placeholder.
"West Virginia allowed 4.4 yards per carry in 2014"
On the ends, Nwachukwu had 34 stops and two sacks, and was also by far WVU's best at getting his hands up to bat down passes. He had four credited deflections a year ago, but in reality that number was more like six or seven. Brown had 21 stops, but no deflections or TFLs, while Kinsey added five tackles in eight appearances.
On the whole, the stops made by the defense were ok, but not great. The glaring absences? Sacks, TFLs and quarterback hits. The half-dozen returnees with playing time had just two sacks and five QB hits, and got into the backfield for just 10.5 stops behind the line (Nwuchukwu had eight of those). Granted, sacks aren't the final analysis of a successful pas rush, but if West Virginia's front line isn't bringing down the QB, then it does need to get push to make him uncomfortable or occupy enough blockers to open lanes for rushing linebackers and strong safeties. There was some of that in 2014, but the need for more is there.
CONCERNS AND QUESTIONS
Two areas of needed performance improvement stand out – the aforementioned pass rush, and per-yard-attempts allowed in the running game. The Mountaineers yielded 4.4 yards per carry in 2014, and while stopping offense is a team effort, some of those rushing yards came when linemen were stonewalled or moved from the point of attack.
Another issue is the transition to yet another coach, as Tall replaces the departed Tom Bradley. Veteran WVU linemen will be playing for their third coach in three years, and while some principles and fundamentals remain the same, there are always different techniques and points of emphasis that each coach brings that must be learned. Tall will have to balance the implementation of his style and teaching points with not confusing or tying up his charges with too many changes.
1) Find a pass rusher or two on the roster that can get to the quarterback. Is Jefferson the answer?
2) Improve the “push” from defensive front to increase pressure, move the QB off his spot and bat down passes. Nwachukwu's video on getting his hands up with the QB prepares to throw should be required viewing.
3) Continue development of redshirt freshmen, and determine if any have a chance to contribute in the fall.
4) Get the next step of improvement from returning veterans. If each could add five tackles and a sack or two to their totals, the impact on the unit, and West Virginia's defensive performance, would be big.