West Virginia's defensive line took some hits over the summer after reserve linemen Xavier Pegues and Jaleel Fields underwent surgeries that will prevent them from playing in most of or all of the 2016 season. In addition to Fields and Pegues' injuries, defensive end Larry Jefferson was dismissed from the team shortly before the start of fall camp, striking another blow to the Mountaineers depth along the line. Late signee Brandon Lawless also departed after a barely-there appearance at WVU, and although he wasn't expected to contribute immediately, he was another player for a group that has suffered some heavy attrition. There are a lot of Mountaineer fans who are nervous, and rightfully so, about the prospect of replacing one of the three seniors who will start on the unit. Defensive line coach Bruce Tall provided some assurance though, saying he is happy with what he sees from some of the younger players.
"They're giving great effort within the scheme so that's been helpful," Tall said."The way they grasp the calls has been really nice. It's been a pleasure because they don't make mistakes."
When asked specifically who has impressed him, Tall praised the entire unit, but pointed to a redshirt freshman pass rusher who has been making some noise in practice.
"It's really collectively been that whole group," Tall said. "We really aren't to the point where we say 'this guy is second team, this guy is the next man up' but collectively they have done a really nice job. I think Adam Shuler has done an exceptional job and he's got some really good length so we're expecting some really big things out of him."
In addition to Shuler, true freshman Reese Donahue could be a name that West Virginia fans could get accustomed to hearing in the fall. All indications are that Donahue is physically ahead of schedule and after a productive spring he should avoid a redshirt.
There is also concern over who will provide a fresh set of legs and spell Darrien Howard at nose tackle. Tall provided some insight to how the players behind the athletic 300-pounder are progressing.
"Hopefully we can utilize (Howard) quite a bit," Tall said. "We have guys we can rotate in for him whether we have guys that come from the nose position or the end position because we want to keep him fresh. He's a really athletic nose and because of his background of being a linebacker he runs better than most guys that would be playing that position. Because he goes so hard we do have to keep him fresh."
Tall has previously said that Christian Brown could move down and help spell Howard at the nose position if need be. Alec Shriner is currently listed as the number two behind Howard and true freshman Chase Behrndt recently moved to the defensive side of the ball to help add depth. Tall said he likes the way both Shriner and Behrndt use their hands because of their wresting backgrounds.
The aforementioned Darrien Howard has been waiting for four seasons to become a starting defensive linemen and this year he has finally locked up a spot at nose tackle. Howard came to West Virginia as a highly touted linebacker but quickly moved to the trenches and made a name for himself as an athletic nose tackle. He has seen playing time in each of his four seasons, regularly coming in to relieve Kyle Rose. Howard spoke about making the transition from linebacker to nose guard.
"It wasn't as long of a process as I thought it was going to be," Howard said about changing positions. "I feel pretty positive about the way I have progressed over the years but I'm still not satisfied. I feel like my game could go to another level. I feel like this is not the last stage of my development."
Howard also noted that he has worked hard on developing his technique, which is something that Rose helped him with in the previous three seasons. Howard should be an upgrade athletically from Rose and if he can perfect his technique and fundamentals he could turn a very strong defensive line into one of the elite units in the Big 12.