West Virginia Spring Football 2016 Linebacker Preview

Continuing our series on position groups at West Virginia prior to the start of 2016 spring football practice, we look at the Mountaineer linebacking corps.

DEPARTURES

Was any school in the nation hit harder in terms of departures at linebacker than West Virginia? The Mountaineers bid farewell to three senior starters who were anchors of the second level of coordinator Tony Gibson's defense. Nick Kwiatkoski played every linebacking position during his career at WVU, finishing with 303 tackles, 14 pass breakups and six interceptions. His pass coverage, based on instinct and smarts, was an underrated part of his game that had a big impact on how the Mountaineers covered the short and mid-zones of the field. Jared Barber was an absolute tough guy, battling though multiple major injuries to finish up a standout career. His total of 192 career tackles doesn’t begin to indicate his importance to the defense and program. He was a strong leader, the winner of the Curtis Jones Award for all-around excellence, and a stellar role model. And don't forget Shaq Petteway, who also recovered from a serious knee injury and made the move down from strong safety to outside 'backer. In the process he bacame another dependable performer with 153 career tackles, six sacks, and six pass breakups.

As if that weren’t enough hits, WVU also lost Isaiah Bruce, who played much of his career at linebacker before moving to the designated pass-rusher position at defensive end for most of his senior year, and Edward Muldrow, who likewise played as a situational sub on many passing down packages. Bruce could have become a locker-room problem after losing the starting job he held for most of his first two years, but he didn’t, instead carving out a spot for himself outside his linebacking role. He finished with 164 tackles, while Muldrow, a junior college transfer, had 58 tackles and 3.5 sacks in his two seasons. In all, WVU linebackers had 325 tackles in 2015 (not including Bruce). The departees accounted for 243 of those. That's not a hole, that’s an impact crater.

REDSHIRTS RISING

David Long is the only scholarship redshirt freshman at linebacker, and as such is certainly someone to watch during the spring. He drew notice from the coaching staff last year during his initial season as a Mountaineer, and his potential, combined with the massive holes on the second level of the defense, set up to give him a chance for playing time this year. He’s likely an outside backer, and has the mobility to get through traffic and get to the ball in pursuit. Has he built enough size and strength to take on the best of the Big 12?

Past Long, it’s all walk-ons, with in-state players Shea Campbell, Troy Lilly, Max Chefren and Ross Harvey dotting the roster. Out of that quartet, might one rise to become a contributor? The spring will be their time to show that ability.

NEWCOMERS

At least in terms of potential, West Virginia did an excellent job in “replacing” its departed backers in its recruiting class of 2016. Four stoppers, with varying strengths and skill sets, came aboard, and each has the ability to play early – but just how early is the question. Brendan Ferns was the most hyped recruit of the quartet, and appears to have the versatility to be slotted at a couple of different positions, so that could help in his effort to play immediately. The others, though, can't be overlooked. All share that same blue collar mentality and toughness that has long been associated with the football towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and that makes them appear very well-suited for the physical mike and sam linebacker spots in WVU's defense. Zach Sandwisch and Adam Hensley are coming off shoulder injuries, so their recoveries could have a lot to do with their ability to get on the field this year. Logan Thimons is, like Kwiatkoski and Barber, a tough, hard-nosed defender who simply gets to the ball and makes plays. It's a group to be excited about, but just as Long learned last year, it's a long way from high school to the heights of Division I.

HOW IT ALL FITS

A large group of juniors will be counted on to compete for starting roles. Xavier Preston, long touted for his athletic ability, is penciled in as a potential starter, but he must become more consistent, and more fundamentally sound, to become the sort of linchpins that Kwiatkoski and Barber were. Hodari Christian and Al-Rasheed Benton, coming off back-up roles, must also make the leap to handle more snaps, and they’ll also get the chance to show what they’ve learned during their apprenticeships over the past three years (including redshirt campaigns). Marvin Gross, who has battled to gain weight to be more of a force on the edge, must show he has the ability to get off blocks and stand up against the run in order to get more playing time.

Senior Justin Arndt was a special teams standout a year ago, and he’ll be vying to show he’s ready for more duty on regular defensive sets. Fellow senior Sean Walters will also be looking to put his talent to more consistent use after spot duty a year ago, along with a good bit of special teams coverage work. They’ll have to fend off a sizable challenge from the incoming freshman class, who certainly won’t be outworked in their quest to break into the rotation.

There are more than just starting and normal backup spots open, and for that reason WVU might see more than the normal number of freshmen avoid redshirts. Linebackers such as Gross have been designated edge rushers in passing situations, and there’s also a need for a beefier ‘backer or two for short yardage packages. One of the biggest concerns is pass defense – are there enough players good enough in coverage to be effective against Big 12 passing attacks? The freshmen and redshirts will get long looks at their abilities in this area, while the seniors who played well on special teams will get the same as to their abilities to become every-down players.

There's also a need for pass rushers in West Virginia's blitz packages. Do one of the freshmen have the knack to split gaps or beat a blocker to get to the quarterback? Have the backups or newcomers developed their timing and improved their techniques enough to disrupt more plays in the backfield? Those that show the ability to create negative plays and tackles for loss will get the upper hand in the battle for playing time this fall.

NEWCOMER BIOS

Played for coach Brett McLean at St. Clairsville High … as a senior, led team to a 9-3 record, 4-1 conference mark and the second round of the state playoffs … strong athlete who also excelled at running back … brother Michael also plays at WVU … senior stats showed 118 tackles, 10 TFLs, two sacks, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two interceptions in leading the St. Clairsville defense … offensive stats as a senior showed 1,066 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, averaging 6.9 yards per carry … also recorded 27 receptions for 600 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 22.2 yards per catch … committed to WVU the morning of National Signing Day … final two schools were Penn State and West Virginia … battle came down to final weekend … missed Penn State visit because of snowstorm … doesn’t use social media or contact media, so recruitment didn’t have a lot of information … originally was supposed to visit WVU on Jan. 16 and Penn State Jan. 30, but those dates were changed … “I’m not a big social media guy, so I don’t know the commits in the class,” Ferns said. “I got to meet some of those guys. It came down to those two schools. One of the big things is the major and staying close to home. The major of petroleum engineering isn’t real big in the north, so that cut it down to two quickly.” … named to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl (2016) … USA Today American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio first team (2015) … Big 22 Player of the Year (2015) … AP All-Ohio Division IV Defensive Player of the Year (2015) … also named to the AP’s All-Ohio Division IV first team (2015), All-Ohio Division V first team (2014), All-Eastern Division IV District Defensive Player of the Year (2015), All-Eastern Division IV District first team (2015), All-Eastern Division V District Defensive Player of the Year (2014) and All-Eastern Division V District first team (2014) … captain of the Times Leader All-District Defensive unit … two-time All-Buckeye 8 Athletic League South All-Star first team (2014-15) … ranked No. 106 on the Scout 300 … four-star recruit according to Scout … Scout also rates him as the No. 7  linebacker nationally, as well as the No. 12 best  prospect in the region and the No. 6 best  overall recruit in Ohio … helped team to an 11-2 overall record and a 5-0 conference mark as a junior … thought he would make college decision before his senior year … announced his decision on Twitter on signing day, noting that he was “proud to announce that I have committed to West Virginia University!” … received more than 31 collegiate scholarship offers, including Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Penn State, Stanford and Wisconsin.

WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Brendan Ferns – “Obviously, Brendan Ferns was a big one for us. He is a little bit of a legacy kid, but he had a lot of options. He could have gone virtually anywhere he wanted to. He decided to spend the next four years with his brother and the Mountaineer family. In high school, Brendan did everything. He played offense. He played defense. He threw it, he caught it, he ran it, and he tackled.”

WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Brendan Ferns – “Brendan Ferns is a highly-recruited kid, who was incredibly productive in high school. He played on both sides of the ball. People like to compare him to Kwit’ (delete ') (Nick Kwiatkowski). But people forget that Kwit’ (delete ') was maybe 200 pounds when he got here; he was a safety, and he grew into a linebacker. Brendan looks now like what Kwit’ (delete ') did last year as a senior. Ferns is already developed to the point where I think he can come in and be in the mix at linebacker pretty quick.”

WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson on Brendan Ferns – “Brendan Ferns is athletic, long, physical. He can play a lot of different positions for us. He’s a guy we’re expecting to play right away.”

Two-year starter for coach Rodney Roberts at Centerville … finished 2015 with 77 totals, including 32 solo stops, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception … made 10 or more tackles in three games, including a season-high 14 against Beavercreek … registered 57 tackles with 29 solo tackles and three sacks in 2014 … a two-time AP All-Ohio Division I Honorable Mention (2014-15) and two-time AP All-Southwest Division I District first team (2014-15) … also named a two-time All-Greater Western Ohio Conference Central Division first team (2014-15) … TriStateFootball.com All-TSF Second Team (2015) … three-star recruit according to Scout … also Scout’s No. 3 inside linebacker in Ohio, No. 8 inside linebacker regionally and No. 41 inside linebacker nationally… committed June 24, before his senior season … has seen great improvement as he’s starting to fill out his frame with room to add more bulk … in the Mountaineers' 3-3-5 defensive scheme, Hensley has the length, burst and strength to play on the outside and come up on the edge as an extra defensive end … named captain his senior season … “It was a huge honor that my team sees me as someone who people come to as a role model,” Hensley said. … WVU was first school to offer … attended the same high school as former West Virginia nose tackle Kyle Rose … “I’m excited and it’s a great honor for West Virginia to be my first offer as I really enjoyed it when I visited and found it to be a great school and a great place for football,” Hensley said. “I went down for their (2014) game against Baylor. I liked the campus in general and how the fans just love West Virginia football. All the hype and everything going around the whole town was a great experience. Kyle Rose was starting when I was there. It was great to see some Elk pride over there.” … chose the Mountaineers over Illinois … “It really came down between Illinois and West Virginia in the end,” said Hensley. “During my first visit last fall I felt really comfortable there and felt like I was home. I love the fans and the town of Morgantown. I also love their 3-3-5 defensive scheme as it can help me get on the field early. But the atmosphere, history and tradition there I fell in love with. So that is where I decided to go.” … originally recruited by former WVU and Kentucky offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson … “Once Coach Dawson left he recruited me a little bit for Kentucky,” he explained. “But as soon as Coach (Bruce) Tall got there he started writing me letters. He also got a Twitter, and while he may not have been too good at Twitter as he’s kind of old school, he did write me emails and letters and we started forming a strong relationship. I like Coach Tall a lot as he’s very sincere and genuine and I love that about him. But I also found that from all of the West Virginia coaches and I really liked that about them.” … Scout recruiting analyst Dave Berk said that Hensley has a “strong point of attack with quick first step and straight line speed to shoot gaps. Strong in run support with the size and strength to fight off bigger offensive linemen. Aggressive player not afraid to lay a hit on whoever comes across his path. Continued work on latter movement and pass coverage skills needed.” … change of direction and pass coverage need work ...hitting ability, instincts and toughness a plus … “Morgantown is very secluded and tight-knit and the fans are crazy about their football,” Hensley said. “I really liked how everybody there pays attention to football and it’s really important to them.” … also offered by Connecticut, Illinois and Northwestern, among others

WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Adam Hensley – “Adam will probably be a mike ‘backer. He’s a little bigger than the other linebackers we recruited, but they all could probably play any of the three positions.”

WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Adam Hensley – “Adam Hensley is a guy I think was kind of underrecruited. He’s a long kid, every bit of 6-foot-3. And he can run. He weighs 220 pounds but looks skinny. He’s a guy I’m pretty excited to see how he develops and where he ends up.”

WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson on Adam Hensley – “Adam Hensley is coming off a shoulder injury, but he was very productive. He comes from a very good high school program that plays really good football. He knows how to win and knows how to work. He’s smart, has excellent academics, the whole package. He’s a really good player.”

Two-year starter for coach Greg Dempsey at Central Catholic High … helped team to a 12-3 record in 2015 and a trip to the state championship … USA TODAY American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio Second Team (2015) … AP All-Ohio Division III Defensive Player of the Year (2015), All-Ohio Division III first team (2015), All-Northwest District Division III Defensive Player of the Year (2015) and All-Northwest District Division III first team (2015) … All-Three Rivers Athletic Conference first team (2015) and honorable mention (2014) … three-star recruit according to Scout … also Scout’s No. 2 inside linebacker in Ohio, No. 6 inside linebacker regionally and No. 29 inside linebacker nationally according to Scout … spent his freshman season at Woodmore High … suffered a preseason knee injury his sophomore year and missed the entire season … then transferred to Central Catholic, where he made 87 tackles (16 for loss) and helped his team to a state title … was the seventh commit to the class … visited in March … not the biggest or fastest linebacker, Sandwisch makes up for it by having great instincts and knowing how to play the game the right way … good intensity and football intelligence … “I shut down the whole process after West Virginia,” Sandwisch said. “I had been down there four or five times. Now I have to keep working. There is no offseason. I don’t take an offseason. I run, stay in shape, lift.” … scouting report notes he brings toughness and physical play to the table, and is a throwback player to an era when defense ruled football … also a versatile player, and could play either strong-side or middle linebacker for the Mountaineers … played against high level competition in Ohio, and was a key member of Toledo Central Catholic’s state title run last year … came up big in the playoffs, and appears to be a player than can raise his performance when the games are biggest … definitely a knock-down tackler … should fit in perfectly with what West Virginia wants to do defensively … “West Virginia is the place for me,” Sandwisch said. “I felt like I left home and drove four hours, but I was still at home at West Virginia. It was just a feeling that I had found my school, and there was no reason to see any other program. I love the coaches there, and I love everything about Mountaineer football.” … foot speed could be a question, but Sandwisch has game speed, as evidenced by the film … has not been asked to drop into coverage much, but he has quick feet and should be able to learn that aspect of the game … missed his sophomore season with a knee injury, but he suffered no effects of that injury later … a player that simply loves playing the game … coaches rave about his leadership abilities … team-first player all the way … work ethic is unquestioned … player that could play special teams as he waits his turn to get regular playing time at linebacker … “It feels like home,” he said of WVU. “I love it there. It was just a feeling that I had found my school, and there was no reason to see any other program. I love the coaches there, and I love everything about Mountaineer football.” … does a great job of finding the ball … times blitzes and shoots gaps well and does a great job of sifting through the wash and navigating through traffic on his way to ball-carriers … plays with good motor and effort and shows the ability to run to the football and close … can improve on playing with better bend and pad level … takes on blockers and tackles high at times … also offered by Illinois, Indiana and Iowa.

WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Zach Sandwisch – “Sandwisch looks like he’s more of a sam linebacker. He’s versatile and tough and smart.”

WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Zach Sandwisch – “Crook went up and stole a Sandwisch from the state of Ohio. He was the Division III defensive player of the year for the state of Ohio, which is a pretty big honor. He led his team to back-to-back state titles. He’s the quintessential linebacker – tough, smart, a leader, somewhat of an overachiever, all those things. He battled through some injuries. I think he’ll bring that mentality to our team. He could play anywhere in our linebacking corps.”

WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson on Zach Sandwisch – “Zach is as tough as anybody in this class. He played with a torn labrum and a dislocated shoulder in the state championship game. He knew it was bad, but he put a brace on it and went out and gutted it out. He was the defensive player of the year at his position in the state of Ohio. I really like him.”

Graduated high school early and enrolled at WVU for the start of the spring semester on Jan. 11, 2016 … three-year starter for coach John Gaillot at Freeport Area Senior High, which is northeast of Pittsburgh … Pennsylvania Class 2A All-State first-team selection in 2015 … Pennsylvania Football News Class 2A Defensive Player of the Year for 2015 … USA TODAY American Family Insurance All-USA Pennsylvania first-team pick in 2015 … helped the Yellowjackets to a 10-2 record in 2015 and the WPIAL quarterfinals … had 401 career tackles in 204 solo stops, 77 TFL, 23 sacks and 13 forced fumbles … set the single-season record for tackles (161), TFLs (33) and sacks (15.5) in 2015 … was a fan of West Virginia and its program growing up ...was the first recruit to commit to the Mountaineers for the 2016 class … “Prior to getting the offer, I knew West Virginia had been my number one choice,” Thimons said after his verbal pledge. “It’s always been my number one choice, and it’s a dream come true. They were my number one school, and I might as well commit and focus on my education and becoming the best player I can.” … West Virginia extended the offer after two camps last summer, one a three-day and the other a one-day event … had never seen WVU’s campus prior to his initial camp experience … recruited originally by former WVU defensive assistant Tom Bradley … “The facilities are amazing,” Thimons said. “I just love the area and how involved everyone is with the football team and how they take care of each other. Everyone is supportive of their Mountaineers, and I knew that was something I wanted to be a part of. I love that.” … had 10 or more tackles in 10 different games, including 24 tackles and five TFLs vs. West Shamokin (9/25) … spent most of his prep career along the defensive line, but will play linebacker in college … had 122 tackles with 24 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2014 … registered 97 tackles with 20 tackles for loss and one sack in 2013 … Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Terrific 25 (2015) and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Fabulous 22 (2015) … three-time WPIAL All-Allegheny Conference first-team choice (2013-15) … a three-star recruit, according to Scout.com, which also listed him as the No. 1 inside linebacker prospect in Pennsylvania, No. 2 inside linebacker in the East region and the No. 12 inside linebacker nationally … increased his burst and he is better with his balance and usage of his hands … able to get up the field in a hurry … is using speed to beat bigger offensive linemen … plays downhill and pursues well … will be challenged early by having to play in additional space … has improved his balance, quickness and reaction time from his junior to his senior season … “It’s a big kick in the butt because I’m officially going to be a part of a top Division I program,” Thimons said. “I have to crank it up two notches and crank my training up because it’s a completely different game. I have to put my heart into every snap and prove I’m capable of playing in that level. I also want my high school and teammates to know my devotion to them.” … shared the news to his Twitter followers, saying, “I’m proud to announce that I’m committed to my dream school and will playing college football at WVU!” … I know they definitely want me to play middle linebacker,” Thimons said. “They want me to fill that spot.” … has the build, tenacity and disposition for the spot … didn’t gain many other offers because his commitment was so strong to West Virginia … likely an underrated prospect when he verballed to the Mountaineers … played mainly inside linebacker in high school but athletic enough to play any of the three linebacker positions for WVU.

WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Logan Thimons – “Logan is like the other linebackers we recruited, in that he’s smart and tough and likes football. He’s getting a jump start on those other guys because he enrolled in January. He’ll be able to practice this spring, and he’s going through our offseason program now. That’s a huge benefit.”

WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Logan Thimons – “Logan is a tough, blue-collar guy. He’s a Mountaineer through and through. He’ll do whatever his team needs him to do. In high school, at times his team needed him to play defensive tackle, so even though he was just 210 or 220 pounds, that’s what he did. And he did it well. He’ll run through the wall. He’s a better athlete than a lot of people realize. He’s kind overlooked because he played a lot of d-line, but we had him in camp and saw how he can move. He’s also a 4.0 student, and I think he can help us sooner rather than later because of how he plays.”

WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson on Logan Thimons – “Logan is a Western PA kid who I recruited and developed a great relationship with. We had him in camp and really liked what we saw from him. He’s athletic and can play a lot of different spots. In high school, they played him at d-end, noseguard, linebacker, anywhere they needed a playmaker. He’s a tough, durable kid, and I really like him.”

Previously In The Series:

Defensive Line


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