Preston knows how that feels. As a true freshman in 2014, he made enough plays and showed enough promise to avoid a redshirt, but he wound up making just two tackles in nine games, with the vast majority of his snaps coming on special teams. Last season, playing behind three senior linebackers, his time was still limited, but he was a part of some third down packages and continued to hold a spot on coverage teams. His season total of 18 tackles was an improvement, and he also showed promised as a disruptor, with three of those coming behind the line of scrimmage.
Still, he had to deal with the idea that something had gone wrong. After all, a player that gets notice as a true freshman should be an established star two years later, right?
In a word, no. Several factors, some involving his play and some due to that depth chart blockade, kept him from having the breakout year many predicted. Then, when open practice commenced last Saturday, Preston wasn't even with the first team. Instead, he was running with the twos at the Sam (strongside) spot behind senior Justin Arndt. Cue the hysteria.
Fortunately, Preston isn't panicking. He isn't acting out because he isn’t a clear-cut starter this spring, despite the early notice.. While noting that the decision on who plays is out of his hands, he knows what he has to do to earn the starting job.
“I just want to listen to coaches and improve every day,” said Preston, who is on the north side of 235 pounds this spring. I want to be more aggressive. I need to get better in recognizing the schemes, learning the defense better, and being able to call out certain things and recognize plays.
“It is sort of incentive when you get a little recognition, but you have to keep getting better,” he said of the way in which he uses that early praise. “You have to realize it's all bigger than you and you have to give something to the team.”
In that vein, he won't even speculate on what he needs to do to earn the starting role, other than to concentrate on what coordinator Tony Gibson and the defensive coaches are telling him. In doing so, he's avoiding the potential for frustration.
“Coach Gibson tells me what I need to do,” he said of the path to a starting role. “Once I'm ready I know he will put me in a position to play. I know he wants the best guys out there.”
Gibson, for his part, noted that some of the depth chart maneuvering during the spring was to create competition, and that having different players work together with the first and second units is being done partly with that in mind. He also noted that seniors, such as Arndt, deserve the chance to show that they can play, and giving them time with the first group is simply a fair way to do that. That philosophy can also be seen at other spots, including Sean Walters at the Will (weakside) linebacker.
“I haven't even thought about a depth chart at this point,” Gibson noted.
While that's true, it's also true that spring practices will provide some players with the springboard they need to prove their worth and earn playing time for the fall. For Preston, it's a critical time. If he can marry his evident physical skills with the items of improvement he mentioned, WVU will have a playmaker that might equal one of the 'backers that it had a year ago.