That's significantly more experience than any of the other positions, as two of three safety spots, all three starting linebackers and both corners look to be replaced on a unit that ranked second in the Big 12 in points allowed at 24.6 per game. The return of end Noble Nwachukwu, and his team-best 8.5 sacks, gives position coach Bruce Tall a block around which to build, while fellow end Christian Brown - suddenly a salad eater - is beginning to emerge as a threat to both the opposing run and pass games.
Brown finished with 33 tackles last season, including 4.5 for loss, good for 11th-best on the team. The 6-2, 298-pound senior has played in 40 career games with 14 starts, and seems primed for a breakout year after steady development as a first-year starter last season. Brown has credited a new found diet, once laced with lettuce, tomato and other vegetables in addition to proteins, to his added endurance.
"I ain't a salad guy," he said, "but people said it will help you out. Our nutritionists, they're big on us eating salads. When they first talked to me I wasn't interested, but somebody said if I wanted to go to the next level, I had to treat my body right."
Enter the veggies...along with some chicken and the occasional bacon. Tall said there's a noticeable difference between where Brown was at this time last year, and where he was at the end of the season, when he had three tackles and played a very solid game in the Cactus Bowl victory.
"He's had a lot of experience now and he really feels confident about his abilities," Tall said. "He finished really well at the end of the season. I thought he had a great game against Arizona State and an unbelievable offseason. He gets it. The light is completely on now."
That leaves the nose, which is arguably the most important spot in the 3-3-5 set. Kyle Rose held down the slot for the better part of the last two seasons, finishing 2015 with 46 stops, eighth most on the team, with an exceptional four sacks. That was, somehow, second on the team from a position which must first beat a consistent double team, than track down a quarterback from an agle that doesn't allow for surprise. Rose was a stalwart there, and quietly did his job as well as anybody since Chris Neild.
Now, senior Darrien Howard - he of the coincidentally played 335 plays, get it? - takes over at the slot, giving West Virginia a trio of starting seniors along the line. Howard has the frame as a stout 6-1, 297 pounds, and has had three full seasons in WVU's strength and conditioning program. Like a lot of lineman, he will get one season to showcase his ability as a full time starter.
"Darrien, there's no drop off between him and Kyle," said Nwachukwu, who actually finished ahead of vaunted Oklahoma rush linebacker Eric Striker in sacks last season. "We push each other in practice every day. One day one will be doing better than another and we know we need to step it up. I let him know little stuff, but he played a lot last year and I know Kyle taught him a lot. He's experienced."
Gibson's unit allowed just 158.8 yards rushing per game, and finished fifth in the nation in turnovers forced with 31, including 23 interceptions. But after losing eight starters - counting Karl Joseph, out after the fourth game last season - and five of its top six tacklers, the line looks like it could be the strength, especially early while less experienced players settle at other positions. That's put some pressure on players like Nwachukwu and Brown, who have been testing an equally experienced offensive front in each scrimmage especially as Tall tries to get them accustomed to playing a bit of nose in case Brown is injured.
"The thing about that is you're going against three people all the time," Brown said. "It's the center and two guards. I played that as a freshman, but I felt like I had more speed so I wanted to get outside. It's mostly the same. You just have to know the technique."
The defensive line is already way out in front in the scrimmage sessions, as Tall also has the unit working on additions to cause further disruption to offenses this season.
"We added a couple more pre-play (adjustments) to get in the linemen's head and mess up their reads," Nwachukwu said. "We are getting better. I try not to get out of the framework of the defense, but I'm also trying to experiment."
As is Tall, now in his second season in his second stint with the Mountaineers.
"We have good depth, and the guys are learning, but it's a work in progress," Tall said. "We are doing some good things, we just have to clean some things up. Spring is real big on technique, and being real strict with it. Minute steps, making everything perfect so it become second nature."
Take a listen to Christian Brown, below, detail how he became a salad eater, per the request of nutritionists, and how he is now taking better care of his body overall, as well as how he feels he fits into the defense, and his take on playing end vs nose in the odd stack. Also, as a bonus, a look at the line in one of their individual unit drills during last Saturday's practice follows the Brown comments below.
A look at West Virginia's line in a turnover drill, with a fumble scoop and ball security added to catching passes. This is a drill every defensive unit practices, as the team rotates through during individual periods.null