Kevin Kinder \ BlueGoldNews.com

West Virginia Football Fall Outlook: Linebackers

As we progress toward the back of the defense, depth and playing experience decrease. The linebacking position has enough players to form a solid unit, but just how quickly can the new group of starters and subs mesh?

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. Today we examine the rebuilding, or reloading, of the linebacking corps.

NEWCOMERS SINCE SPRING

With the roster turnover, enrollment of incoming freshmen was a particular point of interest following the conclusion of spring practice. While there weren't any particular concerns about eligibility, the arrival of Brendan Ferns, and Adam Hensley and Zach Sandwisch had to result in at least a bit of a sigh of relief. Much of the attention was focused on Ferns, who was WVU's most highly-rated recruit and who could avoid a redshirt, but the ingress of Hensley and Sandwisch should not be minimized in comparison. Both are the type of players that the Mountaineers have built their linebacking corps on ever since Don Nehlen took the reins in Morgantown: underrated by many, but tough, smart and disciplined. They, along with Logan Thimons, will be counted on to form the backbone of linebacking units of the future. Add in walk-ons Carter Walburn and Jonah Campbell, both from in-state, and potential building blocks are there. 

The issue now, though, is whether any will be ready to go in 2016. Given the relative playing inexperience on the depth chart, plus the variety of roles that backers may be asked to fill on the defense, the thought is that at least one, and better two, of this group will need to be available for spot duty. Ferns is the obvious player to watch, but don't discount the others.

COACHING CORNER

There are zero questions here in terms of ability, fit and familiarity. Tony Gibson long ago shook off any notions that he was riding the coattails of anyone else in the coaching profession. He also answered any questions about his ability as a coordinator, as he has tweaked, modified and improved West Virginia's defense to get the most out of each player's ability. He's flexible in his approach, and is able to blend the skills of his roster to produce the best unit possible.

As the coordinator, his "other" role as linebackers coach often gets overlooked. There's a lot to like there too, though. His individual sessions move crisply, with every assignment against every formation run through multiple times. In doing so, Gibson also does very well in spotting potential position moves or multiple roles for his charges, and shuffles players freely in order to fill holes and strengthen the overall group.

With this year's team, he has an experience gap to overcome, as a combination of five juniors and seniors are paired with ten freshmen on his roster. He needs to get some of those older players as many snaps as possible during the spring, as most don't have a ton of plays at their current projected positions. Gibson also must get the inexperienced guys enough looks to find out who can help. Getting that work and evaluation in will be his top priority as a position coach, but there's no reason to think he won't be up to the task.

PATH TO EXCELLENCE

No reasonable expectation should hold West Virginia's backers to the same standard as a year ago. The senior trio of Nick KwiatkoskiShaquille Petteway and Jared Barber were 1-2-3 in tackles on the team, combining for 214 of WVU's 870 total stops. Even though there's age experience, there aren't nearly the number of snaps coming back as there were for the now-departed group a season ago. That said, what's the ceiling for this group?

First, Al-Rasheed Benton must build on his play of 2015 and prove that he's capable of every down duty. It may well be that he is, and that it was just the seniors of last year were so reliable that they kept him off the field more than he deserved. Next, the duo of somewhat surprise starters on the outside must continue to show what they did in the spring, and become the sort of reliable players that guys like Petteway and Wes Tonkery were in the past. Justin Arndt, another walk-on success from in-state, and Sean Walters, who has had an up and down career, will have to answer consistency questions on a play-by-play basis and show they can stand up to Big 12 running games. While they have been at WVU for a long time, this is the first time they have been asked to fill starting roles.

Second, names that have been bandied about for a while must also ascend the improvement and consistency ladder. Xavier Preston, who gained early notice for his athleticism and hitting ability, has to mature and grow in his understanding of the defense and ability to execute assignments. Hodari Christian is in something of the same boat, and his time on the field was less than any of the other backers in 2015. They have experience in years, but are they ready to move from spot backups to full-time reliance?

Then there are the freshmen and redshirts. Out of this group, David Long stands out the most. Many expect him to challenge Walters for the weakside spot at some point this year, but whether he starts or not, the important point is that both are ready to be counted on by the time the Big 12 curtain lifts. Behind him, pick any two of the true freshmen or walk-ons. It doesn't matter who they are, but they must at least push for consideration of playing time.

THE OVERALL

Without question, WVU has experience in five of its linebackers. However, much of that is of the special teams variety, although Benton and Preston do have some backup time of note on the defense. They are part of a group of five juniors and seniors, all of which current hold a first- or second-team spot on the depth chart. Can all five grow into those roles? How will they mesh with each other? And how will they relate and work with the freshmen? There are ten of the latter (six redshirt, four true), and that group, led by Young, will need to find ways to work with the older set to form a cohesive unit. Will the lack of a bridging sophomore class be a problem there?

The potential performance of the linebackers spans a large spectrum. The talent is there for solid performance. There are enough players to create competition that allows a couple of the youngsters to push into backup roles. But is there a performance leader of the type of Kwiatkoski or Barber? Is there a player or two who takes charge with the freshman? And which of the latter group could get to the place where a series or two, or a spot as a designated pass rusher, is a realistic achievement? There are more questions than answers at this point, so the next four weeks will be critical in determining the early season shape of the second level of the defense.

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
    Defensive Line    

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