Kevin Kinder\BlueGoldNews.com

West Virginia Football Fall Outlook: Defensive Line

West Virginia might have its saltiest starting defensive front of the Dana Holgorsen era in place for 2016, but dismissals and departures have left a wide open competition for backup positions.

In our spring previews, we focused on the players. In this fall run-up series, we'll go with some different angles on how newcomers and coaches will fit into the picture with the veterans and players who were on campus for the spring semester, and what has to happen for each group to excel. In this edition, we head to the defense, starting up front.

NEWCOMERS SINCE SPRING

Both members of the class of 2016 ( Reese Donahue and Jeffery Pooler ) enrolled for the spring semester, so there weren't any schoalrship player additions over the summer. However, that didn't mean there weren't any moves. Jon Lewis, who got a tryout this sping as a tight end while earning our Tommy Nickolich Award, shifted back to the defensive front. Part of the reason for that may have been the fact that the tight end spot appears to have enough bodies, but it also proved prescient when Larry Jefferson was disimssed from the team after being arrested for drug possession this past week. Lewis, who has tallied five tackles in six games a year ago, is one of many competing for backup roles this fall.

COACHING CORNER

Bruce Tall enters his second season in his second stint as a West Virginia coach, and the term “comfortable” might be the best to describe his current status with the linemen. His depth of knowledge is on display every time he sits for an interview, and his message on the field is a consistent one. Like the man himself, his coaching style is no-nonsense, and there's an excellent mix of motivation and technical detail to be seen and heard as he works with his players.With his steady approach, he is well-suited to the task of long-term development.

His ability to bring young players along will be tested heavily this year, as he will have to find at least two, and hopefully three or four, backups who can either be situational subs or play 10-15 snaps in order to give the starting trio a break. Redshirt freshmen Adam Shuler and Alec Shriner will get a lot of attention, but so too will Xavier Pegues, who has the size to hold his ground in the running game. Jaleel Fields who had a handful of tackles a year ago, will also be under the gun to progress quickly. Lewis has every chance to be the backup anchor around which this development is constructed, but the pressure will be on to get a corps of backups ready who can play near the level of Noble NwachukwuChristian Brown and Darrien Howard.

PATH TO EXCELLENCE

It would be a big surprise if Nwachukwu, Brown and Howard did not perform well in 2016. They combined for 96 tackles (20.5 for lost yardage) in 2015, and figure to surpass those totals this season. They might not be stars that can dominate on every play, but all three have the experience and confidence to make West Virginia's line stout from the start. The question is, how much wear and tear can they take without seeing a drop in performance?

If, somehow, this trio can play a lot of snaps without that happening, WVU would have a very good base at the front of its defense. With Nwachukwu's pass rush and ability to bat down passes, Brown's power opposite and Howard's ability to hold the fort inside, the Mountaineers have a diverse group which can blend its skills to produce a great result. If fatigue or injury were not an issue, these three would make WVU's line one of the best in the league. If the Mountaineer offense can hold the ball at times (a possibility given its running game chops) and cut down on turnovers, the NBH group might be able to stay on the field more than it did a year ago.

The other path to making the defensive front achieve at its highest level is the development of the younger and less experienced players. That might be just as dicey as the first path, because it's rare when an entire group of unproven players comes through with big jumps in performance. That's not a knock on these guys – it's simply the way things usually work out. Players develop at different speeds and along different paths, so it's not fair to expect four players at a position to make huge gains over one offseason.

So, let's say a couple of the youngsters and less experienced players get to the point where they can play a couple of series. That still leaves space for a pass rush specialist, or someone who can collapse the pocket on obvious throwing downs. With Jefferson gone, that spot is wide open (and to be honest, it was already open, as Jefferson did very little last year to show he could be a rusher to contend with). If someone can step into this role, West Virginia would reach levels of defensive line play that it hasn't seen in a while. But there's a lot of ground to cover, and improvement to make, to get to that point.

THE OVERALL

The numbers on the defensive front are adequate. It's the overall performance from the top six or so players that will make or break this unit in 2016. West Virginia will need contributions from just about everyone on the roster to give it the depth it needs. Can one of the freshmen jump in to help? Donahue turned some heads and got a long look in the spring, but he'll need to continue to mature quickly to move into one of those spot roles.

It's more likely that the Mountaineers will have to again shuffle players to fill all of the defensive front roles. Moving a linebacker down to end in pass rush situations is a very strong possibility, and it won't be a surprise to see a player like Brown take snaps at both end and tackle as the young guys develop, or to fill an injury gap. In that regard, it's a similar story for the WVU defensive front as over the past few seasons -- the Mountaineers can compete with anyone in terms of its starting rotation, but getting backups up to speed remains a primary concern.

What did we think prior to spring practice? Check out our pre-spring thoughts!

Other Fall Outlook Previews

Offensive Line Wide Receivers Running Backs Tight Ends and Fullbacks Quarterbacks

BlueGoldNews Top Stories