WVU has 13 players listed as linebackers heading into spring drills, giving the Mountaineers a full complement of players across the second level of the defense. Leading tackler Nick Kwiatkoski will make a switch to the Sam (strongside) position, backed up by former starter Isaiah Bruce and Xavier Preston, who avoided a redshirt last year and is thought to be a potential rising star. With two accomplished players in front of him, however, he might need another year before he comes fully to the fore. Jared Barber, returning after a year's absence due to surgery, will move inside to the Mike (middle) position, where he is similarly well-supported by Al-Rasheed Benton and Hodari Christian. That group gives WVU more size and strengh in the middle of the corps. The Will (weakside) is the thinnest of the three, but features two players with experience in Shaq Petteway and Edward Muldrow. Marvin Gross and Sean Walters are also back to provide support, but will have a good bit of work to do in order to make an impact on the depth chart.
With five seniors on the roster (Petteway, Barber, Kwiatkoski, Bruce and Muldrow) it will be important to continue the process of developing younger players and backups for the 2016 season. However, for this year, the starting load will likely fall mostly on the returning senior trio that heads the spring depth chart.
The Kwiatkoski\Barber switch should take advantage of the strengths of each player, and perhaps make them even more productive in 2015. Of the two, Kwiatkoski might be a little more mobile, which could help him in pass coverage, but the return of Barber can't be overemphasized. Like Kwiatkoski, his measurables and speed might not jump off the chart, but he simply gets to the ball and makes plays, and can stand his ground against big blockers who get out to the second level.
Overall, WVU has a great foundation of players who have “been there, done that” on defense. Their experience and maturity should also help the youngsters and developing players behind them, giving West Virginia a really good situation at these spots.
CONCERNS AND QUESTIONS
The strength, aggressiveness and determination of West Virginia's starting corps of linebackers is unquestioned. It should be very good against the run. The one question facing: can they drop into pass coverage effectively enough to help against the myriad crossing routes and slot receivers of Big 12 passing attacks? The Mountaineers have had trouble with covering receivers with linebackers, and while that's not exactly unique in the Big 12, it is an area WVU needs to polish if it hopes to better its improved defensive performance of a year ago. Scheme, as much as personnel, might be juggled somewhat to help with this, as putting players into positions where they can be successful is just as important as designing a system that works in theory.
Tackling was not a huge issue in 2014, but in a couple of games it was a problem and contributed to losses. Improving consistency in this area is always important, but in the Big 12, where yardage is going to be yielded, it's even more so. Limiting yards after the catch, and keeping big plays to a minimum, is one way to steal an extra possession or keep one score off the board, and that can be the difference in a tightly contested game.
There also has to be a least a bit of concern in the position switches, but that is probably well down the list of items that Tony Gibson is concerned about. Kwiatkoski and Barber are both veterans, and even in the slim eventuality that the move doesn't work out, a return to their former spots would still be available. How Barber's shoulder, and indeed, his body, stand up to contact will also be watched early, but the year off of rest would be expected to have a positive effect on his final season of play.
1) Continue to develop young backups, and give them plenty of time to keep veterans fresh for the fall.
2) Look at a number of different combinations of players to use in different situations. Which LBs can help in pass rush packages? Which ones can stay on the field in passing situations? Which ones are three-down players?
3) With just one linebacker coming in via the 2015 signing class, the chance exists to get a lot of things set in the spring. While the coaching staff will never admit to setting a depth chart in stone this early, it could get ahead of the game a bit by getting tentative lineups in place for all of West Virginia's defensive sets.
4) Develop the pass rush from blitzers on the second level. With speed a bit of a question mark, this may not be a place where huge improvements can be made, but WVU needs to get more from it's second line defenders to help augment the push of the three-man front.