There’s plenty of reason for the optimism, including essentially 10 returning starters with the return of Jared Barber, quality depth across the board – especially at linebacker, where WVU is three deep at spots – and the experience and development that comes only with years of plying the trade both on the field and in the weight room. But to rate a defense which finished just 74th nationally in points allowed per game (27.6) as arguably tops entering? A unit that allowed 399.4 yards per game, good for 68th in the NCAA? That lost its sacks leader and which hasn’t, truly, measured up to top flight status of yet?
Holgorsen did just that, and was rather adamant in doing so during the Big 12 Media Day press conference Monday, pulling no proverbial punches with both his expectations and his confidence in a side of the ball he has rather ignored for the majority of his career.
“Without a doubt, it should be the best that I've had potentially since I started coaching 20-some years ago,” Holgorsen said of the Mountaineer defense. “I've just got guys that have a bunch of experience. When we came into this league three years ago, everybody remembers Geno Smith and Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, but I doubt you could name another person, especially anybody on defense. Just guys that have been in three and four years, even going into their fifth year, guys have been there and they've played a bunch. We've got a lot of guys that are starters and backups.
“I'm not going to sit here and apologize for where we're at defensively. From a coaching staff perspective, we're in a different place as well. (Coordinator) Tony Gibson has done a great job. He brought a scheme that he believes in and I believe in, and he knows how to coach it. We've got all our position coaches back, added Bruce Tall for our D-line, who's coached in this defense as well. So continuity on the defensive staff along with a lot of experience with players and some pretty good talent as well. It's been a long road to get to this point defensively, and we obviously feel good about it.”
Most of the statistical leaders return, including linebacker Nick Kwaitkoski. The senior led WVU with 71 solo tackles last season, 11.5 tackles for loss, while ranking fifth in the Big 12 in stops. Karl Joseph, who paired up with Kwiatkoski to represent West Virginia’s defense at media days, was ninth in solo stops in the league last year, and second in forced fumbles with three. The two are expected to anchor the second and third levels in the odd stack, built primarily to both plague spread offenses and utilize the ability to pay in space while taking pressure off sometimes smaller linemen.
It’s worked for West Virginia for the better part of the last 14 years, the Mountaineers using a trio of other options and trashing each after of one season of use. The fact that players are in the same defense for the first time since the 2009-10 season also adds to the confidence levels even against an initial conference schedule that is arguably the most difficult in the nation with three October road games versus Big 12 favorites TCU and Baylor, along with Oklahoma. The lone home game? A contest against Oklahoma State, chosen fourth in the league.
“Going into our fourth year, I feel pretty confident, pretty comfortable with our team,” Holgorsen said. “We've got 40 juniors and seniors in the two deep. We've got 22 guys that have started Big 12 football games. We've got over 50 guys that have played in Big 12 football games. So a lot of the guys that are on our team right now are guys that have been there and done that, understand what the Big 12 is all about, understand the style of ball, understand the personnel. It's just we're in a totally different position than we have been in the past.”
Holgorsen also touched on the Big 12’s announcement that it would lessen live contact to two days during the regular season, including game day. That means just one practice during game week will be full contact. That wasn’t a matter of major concern for Holgorsen, who noted that he hasn’t “had a two-a-day at West Virginia in four years, haven't had -- really actually haven't had back-to-back full contact days in quite some time. The way the model is right now is something that I've supported and something that we've done at West Virginia since I got there. It's obviously an issue.
“You've got to protect the kids as much as you possibly can, but you can't lose sight of the fact that it's a physical game. Everybody wants to say, well, we're going to go to the spread offense and be soft. You go to the spread offense and you're soft, you're going to get your butt kicked. So you got to maintain a physical nature. It's a physical game. They can curb it from practice time a little bit, but if you curb it out there on the game field, you're not going to be successful. I just think you've got to be able to find that balance, and you've got to be able to do as much contact and as much teaching these guys the proper techniques and the proper mentality, which is being tough. If you don't do that, you're not going to win.”
BlueGoldNews.com will have more with Holgorsen, including a Q and A and the link to the full interview session, coming soon.