Since the defense has the most questions for 2016, we'll start on that side of the ball, beginning up front with the big guys in the trenches.
West Virginia bid adieu to stalwart Kyle Rose, who moved along the defensive front to wherever the Mountaineers needed him over the course of the career. That attitude, along with a leadership style that worked well with the blue-collar workers up front. A productive player who recorded 113 tackles over the course of his WVU career, Rose will be missed both off the field and in the locker room.
Career backup Eric Kinsey also completed his eligibility, and while he wasn't a star, his depth will also be missed. He accounted for 34 tackles over his career, and had his best season as a senior.
Adam Shuler and Alec Shriner will get their first real chances to make an impact this year, and it all starts in the spring as they try to showcase the strength they have added during their first year on campus. Shuler (6-5, 250 lbs.) is the longer and rangier of the two, so he likely gets a look on the outside of the line, while Shriner (6-3, 280 lbs.) is more suited to the interior, where he can bring his wrestling background into play in the middle of the scrum.With backup positions available for the taking, their motivation should be high to show they are ready to handle a role on the 2016 line.
WVU added two defensive linemen to the roster, and both are already enrolled and working out with the team. Freshmen Reese Donahue and Jeffery Pooler would normally be redshirted as they go through the weight gains and body reshaping that is common for linemen making the move to college, but due to the lack of experienced backups there might be room for one to get some snaps this year. That's still a long way off of course, but the Mountaineers' lack of productivity past its projected starters opens the way for such a move.
Donahue, at his current weight of 245 lbs., looks like a defensive end, while Pooler, who is in the 290 range, could play either inside or out. The spring will be important for them to find their baselines in terms of technique and begin working on those specifics that will help them at their anticipated positions.
HOW IT ALL FITS
West Virginia has three seniors set to anchor the starting spots on the front line, but behind Noble Nwachukwu, Christian Brown and Darrien Howard, there are questions galore, along with plenty of backup snaps to be had. Junior college transfer Xavier Pegues (6-3, 285 lbs.) will get a long look after sitting out a year ago, and WVU badly needs him to be a strong backup presence and pass-rusher. The Mountaineers also hope that a second year in the program will help senior Larry Jefferson (6-5, 225 lbs.) become an impact player off the edge in passing situations, but he has a long way to go after getting pushed around a good bit during the 2015 season. In nine games he had just two tackles and no sacks, and he must be much more productive if WVU is to get the push against passers up front that it has so long lacked.
The time is also now for sophomore Jaleel Fields (6-1, 285 lbs.) to begin to make a push into the rotation, because behind him there are only walk-ons with no experience at all. Fields got into four games in 2015 and made a mark, getting eight tackles, but this year WVU will need much more from him, as he'll be counted on to anchor the backup unit.
The senior trio will need to mentor the backups and newcomers strongly during the spring, and their success in teaching might have as much to do with WVU's play this fall as that of the coaching staff. The Mountaineers have a big gap between the Nwachukwu\Brown\Howard trio and the rest of the roster, as Pegues is the only scholarship junior, while Fields is the only scholarship sophomore. Can they, along with defensive line coach Bruce Tall, get at least three players ready for significant backup roles? Pegues and Fields are the obvious candidates, but their progression during the 15 spring practice sessions will be critical to buttressing the defensive front.
As always, pass rushing from the front three will be a focal point. The sacks don't necessarily have to pile up, but the line must get push, collapse the pocket and force opposing quarterbacks off the spot. That was inconsistent a year ago, but the building blocks are there for it to improve in 2016. The key, again, is the backups, who can't have a big drop-off in performance when they hit the field. There will certainly be a great deal of technique work in this area in the spring as the backup candidates try to prove their worth.
Graduated high school early and enrolled at WVU for the start of the spring semester on Jan. 11, 2016 … two-year starter for coach Luke Salmons at Cabell Midland High School … first player in state history to win both the Stydahar Award (given to West Virginia’s top prep lineman) and the 2015 Huff Award (state’s best defensive player) … West Virginia All-State Class AAA Defensive Captain (2015) … two-time West Virginia All-State Class AAA first-team selection (2014-15) … USA TODAY American Family Insurance All-USA West Virginia Defensive Player of the Year (2015) … Herald-Dispatch All-Tri-State Defensive Player of the Year (2015) and two-time Herald-Dispatch All-Tri-State first team (2014-15) … helped Cabell Midland to a 22-3 record the past two seasons and an appearance in the semifinals of the 2015 state playoffs … had 167 career tackles, including 99 solo stops, 46 TFLs, 27 sacks and 31 quarterback hurries … made 97 tackles, including 53 solo tackles, in 2015 with 25 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks and three forced fumbles … had eight or more tackles in eight different games, and had at least one TFL in 11 games … had 74 tackles with 25 tackles for loss and 16 sacks in 2014 … two-time All-Mountain State Athletic Conference first-team selection (2014-15) … played in the Blue-Gray All-American Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 9, 2016 … was the third player to commit to WVU for the class of 2016 … took part in West Virginia’s junior day festivities last February, earning an offer from the Mountaineers at that point … committed just a week later … has the size and build to play at a high D-I level … “It’s kind of one of those things where if you look around my house I don’t have any other decorations of any other colleges,” Donahue said. “You’ll see a picture of me with Owen Schmitt, Pat White and Steve Slaton. That’s just where I’ve always wanted to go. I know I’ve got the whole state behind me. It’s just a place I feel at home and I know it’s good for me.” … Scout.com three-star player … Donahue and his family had the chance to speak with the Mountaineer coaching staff before an offer was extended … “We were up there and Coach Gibson and Coach Tall escorted us around all day and they said they wanted to get together with us and talk,” he said. “We all got together to talk and they brought Coach Holgorsen in and we talked for about 15-20 minutes. Then after that Coach Holgorsen and Gibson left for about one minute tops and then they told us to come to the conference room. They told me they discussed scholarships and they wanted to offer me.” … MVP of Football University Camp and Top Gun Camp (2014) … Scout.com also rates him as the No. 6 defensive end in the East Region according to Scout … also offered by Cornell and Purdue, with interest from Nebraska … “It’s pretty awesome to be honest,” Donahue said after committing to WVU. “You get to represent something bigger than yourself. You play for your high school and that’s fantastic and that’s the best thing that could happen to be a part of something. But the giant jump to college and being able to represent West Virginia University and have state pride is great.”
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Reese Donahue – “I wish there were more guys like Reese in the state. He’s been here a month, but he’s already shown he’s eager to work.”
WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Reese Donahue – “Reese Donahue is an in-state guy, who if he had lived in another state, we would have had a dogfight for him, his recruitment would have been much more difficult. He’s a versatile kid who is just coming into his own. He’s 240-some pounds, and he’ll probably be 260 or 270 by the end of the season. Because he enrolled early, I think he’ll have a chance to get into our rotation this fall.”
WVU defensive line coach Bruce Tall on Reese Donahue – “With Donahue, he’s the total package, and I’m really excited to work with him. He’s got great length and an unbelievable motor. He’s a very intelligent young man. The sky is the limit for him. He’s the first guy in the meeting room, and he’s already knocking on the door asking questions. He’ll know what he’s supposed to do. He’s definitely an edge guy for us right now, but being so young, you never know what Mother Nature is going to do to him. We’ll just see how big he gets and what position will ultimately be the bet fit for him down the road.”
WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson on Reese Donahue – “Reese is just relentless. He doesn’t take plays off. He has a good frame and a big motor. He’ll really help us.”
Graduated high school early and enrolled at WVU for the start of the spring semester on Jan. 11, 2016 … played for coach Darren Powell at Dunbar High … AP Division IV All-Ohio Honorable Mention (2015) and first-team Division III-IV All-Area Team (2015) … Southwest Ohio - American Conference Defensive Player of the Year (2015) … second-team All-Greater Catholic League (2014) … Scout.com Southwest Ohio Super 25 Team, which also rates him as a two-star recruit … as a senior, he finished with 82 tackles, including eight sacks, five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries … as a junior, he registered 67 tackles, including two sacks and two forced fumbles… “I would describe my game as a playmaker,” Pooler said. “I like to get to the ball and make plays. Over the last year I feel I have improved by getting more physical, getting off blocks and recognizing where the play goes. I’m more of a team player.” … BlueGoldNews.com’s scouting report on Pooler noted that he moves very well, and is light on his feet for a big man … lateral movement is very good, and he can track plays down the line to get to the ball out of his zone … always looking to pursue, and when he gets a gap, he is usually quickly into it and in pursuit mode before opposing blockers can react … just turned 17 prior to his senior season … likely to continue the growth and filling out process through his first couple years of college, and it’s not a stretch that he’ll end up close to 300 pounds by the time he is ready to hit the field … has the building blocks to make a good lineman who isn’t just a static position player that can only absorb blocks or stand his ground … “I wanted a program with great tradition and a great coaching staff which will help me develop as a player and as a student,” Pooler said … will have to work to maintain his mobility and flexibility as he adds strength and grows into the college game … has the quick burst to help him get into preferred gaps and become a dictator, not a reactor, on the defensive front … needs a redshirt season … best football is head, but some coaches on other teams disagreed about his potential … has a lot of work to do to hone his technique … Pooler relied on speed and quickness to overwhelm Ohio high school opponents, but he will need to reshape his game to be an effective force in college … mindset and determination will be tested as much as his athletic skills … college position won’t be known for at least a couple of years, and will be dependent on how he grows and whether his development trends more toward power and strength or quickness off the edge … committed to both Maryland and Toledo before West Virginia … also offered by Louisville, Maryland and Tennessee, as well as several non-Power 5 schools.
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Jeffery Pooler – “Jeffery is a big defensive lineman. He enrolled in January, and that’s good, because he’ll get an extra six months to getter bigger and stronger.”
WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Jeffery Pooler – “Jeffery Pooler is a big defensive lineman. He gives us some versatility. He’s already 290 pounds. He can play inside, but he could also play outside and set the edge. He’s a really, really smart kid. Great in the classroom. Like a lot the young linemen, you get him here, get him in the weight program and see what happens.”
WVU defensive line coach Bruce Tall on Jeffery Pooler – “I think Pooler offers us a player who could play either inside or outside. He’s got a good, solid base. His growth will come in the weightroom, which makes it perfect to have him enroll early. That will allow coach (Mike) Joseph and the strength staff to improve his overall strength. But he’s got a real good frame to build from.”
WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson on Jeffery Pooler – “Jeffery Pooler is a guy who could d-end or noseguard for us. He’s very skilled, and uses his hands well. He can get after the quarterback.”