Tall, who joined Dana Holgorsen’s staff from Charlotte, where he was the defensive coordinator and line coach for a program in its infancy, has a history anchored in more multiple fronts. The Shaker Heights, Ohio native worked his way through the Buckeye State system for a decade before stints at Northeastern, Harvard and Western Michigan. It was then, in 2003, that Tall broke into the Power Five level with his hiring at WVU, under then-coordinator Jeff Casteel.
That was also his initial foray into the odd stack. After experimenting with multiple defenses in the first two years of the Rich Rodriguez tenure in 2001-02, the Mountaineers settled on the 3-3-5 alignment. The idea behind the scheme, which originated at South Carolina under current Texas head coach and then Gamecock defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, was to allow smaller, but more athletic, players to replace traditional linemen and linebackers in the front six, and “stack” them behind one another to protect them from the uber-sized, physical linemen marquee SEC teams possessed.
That also worked well at West Virginia, which was having trouble recruiting the linemen needed to run more base fronts, like the 4-3 and 4-2-5 alignments Tall had utilized in other coaching stops. The ability to attack gaps via a series of stunts and at least one ‘backer rushing on almost every play allows the defense to make pass pro and run-based blocking schemes nearly irrelevant. It drove base, man-on-man power run teams batty, and, before the zone blocking styles, made headway in turning teams like South Carolina (0-11 to 8-4) and West Virginia (8-5 the first two seasons with the defense to three straight 11 win seasons) into far better squads.
“I had come out of more of a Virginia Tech 4-2-5 at Harvard, and we ran strictly the base 4-2-5 at Western Michigan,” Tall said. “We had the rover and the whip. Both (even and odd fronts) have a positive to them. It’s just a matter of understanding what the strength of each one is and getting guys to buy in to and utilize the strength of it. You can pick both of them apart and find some weakness in either one. It’s really when the players buy in to what you’re doing and understand you can have success in either one, they both work.”
And Tall now has that buy-in from a group that seems as famished for success as any in recent history. These Mountaineers, for the first time in their careers, are running the same defense for consecutive seasons, and carrying that base knowledge and the confidence that accompanies it, along with the attributes of a Tall-coached front, have primed the line for success.
“It’s a mentality that we bring to the field that offenses will have to fear us this year,” nose tackle Kyle Rose said. “We have a lot of things that we need to work on, but the hopes are high for us.”
Rose is among the more vocal and emotional leaders on the team. A fifth-year senior with 20 starts and 38 games played, Rose was originally recruited to play end in the stack, and has showed exceptional fortitude and perseverance in being shuffled through four defensive coordinators and just as many position coaches in a career that’s amassed 109 tackles.
“It’s always a hard time when you bring in a new coach,” Tall said. “Are they going to put the fence up, a wall up? Or are they going to embrace what you’re going to coach. These guys just want to be coached. They know they have a chance to be very successful and they want to be coached. They are doing what we ask them to do and trying to improve on their craft.”
And, according to former coordinator and current safeties coach Joe DeForest, this group is well ahead of last year’s, when they were again installing yet another new defense in trying to find some semblance of comfort in a rough and tumble Big 12.
“Coach Tall drills us,” Rose said. “Out of the four coaches I have had, we have probably had more drills that we have done in one practice than we have done in three practices in previous years, so we are getting good work in. Coach Tall is a really detail-oriented guy, looking at how each position affects the other position and how each guy works off each other guy. Working on the details is one thig that coach Tall really emphasizes with us as a defensive line. The techniques is all really the same, our five techniques, thee techniques and a zero nose that I have been playing. It’s working on the details and getting your footwork to the inch. The details matter.”
Tall said he has a “technique board for every position. Yeah, we like to hammer that. Your effort always gets better once your technique gets better. What we are trying to do is get guys to understand the game and study the game. With that understanding, and technique, your play gets smoother and everything is easier for you.”
That has shown, even to players on the other side of the ball. Center Tyler Orlosky has noticed the energy and constant hustle of the line throughout spring practices and into the fall. The continual hounding by Tall for technique and effort has translated to his players, who are straining longer and, it appears, harder than before.
“Coach Tall does a good job of getting his guys going,” Orlosky said. “They play hard for him and that’s the biggest difference. Those guys are always going and they know what Bruce Tall expects of them.”
Linebacker Jared Barber said the most noticeable aspect, when playing behind the three down linemen, is the work ethic. Barber said he first noticed it in spring after having watched from the sidelines last season while recovering from knee surgery and a staph infection. That ability to note the level of play from both a coaching and playing viewpoint has given him a greater appreciation of Tall’s contributions.
“He’s a very technical guy,” Barber said. “Works those players to death. We will be standing over there as linebackers during special teams and obviously D line doesn’t do too much with special teams. They are down there drilling the whole time and Kyle Rose comes back just dead beat tired. They are working those guys. He is a heck of a coach. You can tell he gets a lot of respect from his players. He demands respect and he gets it. He is making them so much better. I know they are playing a lot harder than they have been. He has high expectations and high demands for those guys. They are playing with a high level right now.
“We have a lot to prove. The four, going on five, years that I have been here we obviously haven’t been the best defensive team we could be. The guys we have coming back and the experience we have and the mental toughness and maturity we have coming back is what will separate us from the previous teams while I was here.”