After losing Jaleel Fields for the entirety of the 2016 season and Xavier Pegues for up to three months, Bruce Tall is tasked with getting three freshmen (Adam Shuler, Reese Donahue and Alec Shriner) ready for live game action. That backup trio, along with experienced junior defensive end Jon Lewis, will surely factor into the Mountaineer rotation. Tall knows it is important to get his starting three some rest, especially because of the up-tempo style offenses that West Virginia will regularly see. Tall, who is a veteran in the profession, has seen college football drastically change throughout the 30+ years he has coached. He says with the advent of spread, no-huddle offenses it is as important as ever to develop depth along the defensive line.
"Your lungs get burning," Tall said. "The game is moving sideways. It's not pounding and getting downhill (any more). Offenses really utilize the whole field - stretching you horizontally, stretching you vertically, so you're doing a whole lot more running. People try to say you're only running two or three yards but not anymore."
In order to get some of the inexperienced and younger players ready Tall has no choice but to throw them in the fire and see what they can do in live-game action. Coaches often say that the best way for players to improve is through taking live reps, and defensive linemen are no different in that regard. With a proven front three in Darrien Howard, Christian Brown and Noble Nwachukwu Tall has been trying to maximize the reps for his younger players.
"As time goes on, it's like anything else, you can't simulate experience," Tall said. "The only way (the younger defensive linemen) are going to get experience is to keep playing. When will they get to where you really want them to get? It could be game one, it could be game 10."
Although Tall doesn't have a specific snap count that he wants to place his players on for games, he does have a plan intact for when he wants linemen to rotate in and out during live game action.
"I have a plan up in the box that I write out," Tall said. "I have a rotation plan and I try to stick to it because you just don't know how many plays are going to be in a game. So I don't have a set number of plays, it really comes down to the game. For instance, I'll have 10 or 11 series and I'll go 'this series I want this group and this series I want to insert this guy' and I have it all inside my head with how I want it to fit. The game dictates how I'll stay with that but it's amazing at the end of the game how many times I have been able to stay within that scheme."
The hope is that Shriner, Lewis, Shuler and Donahue can give the Mountaineers some quality snaps sooner rather than later. Even though we have yet to see Shuler and Donahue in live game action, both have shown flashes in fall camp. In multiple practices Donahue has been able to beat veteran offensive linemen and get to the quarterback. Shuler has also drawn praise from both Tall and defensive coordinator Tony Gibson for his pass rushing ability, hopefully the young linemen can replicate their performances in practice when it matter most.
Much like the defensive line, the WVU linebacker unit searching for quality depth in fall camp. That search became a lot tougher when Brendan Ferns, a highly touted freshman linebacker, tore his ACL last week. Making the news even harder for Mountaineer fans is the fact that Ferns was already running with the second unit and making a push for playing time. Starting mike linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton talked a little bit about the impact Ferns was having prior to his ACL tear.
"Brendan is smart," Benton said about the true freshman. "Like I said before, from the first day he came in and was ready to learn the system. He showed that interest and he understands his role in this team. He works every day to get better and better in his role. He's a great player and a great guy. I can't wait to see what he looks like in a couple more practices."
That glowing review came after Saturday's scrimmage, which was just 72 hours before Ferns' knee injury occurred. But, similarly to how Jeremy Tyler will have to fill in for Dravon Askew-Henry, the Mountaineers will look for the next man up to pace Benton on the field, and presumably that man will be Hodari Christian, a redshirt-junior who was mainly used on special teams in 2015.
Benton also offered his thoughts on the defense's dominating performance in last Saturday's scrimmage.
"We came out and played with a lot of effort," Benton said. "We flew around and made a lot of plays and caused a lot of turnovers. That's something we need to work on. As hot as it is today, we need to know that we can come out in this heat in any circumstance and play this brand of defense that coach Gibby wants us to play."