As a middle linebacker, Al-Rasheed Benton is usually honed in on the trenches. Mike linebackers are often taught to focus on the offensive line to read plays; if the guards are pulling they will often take you right to the ball on a running play, if the tackles stand up and go into pass protection you need to drop into a zone or find your assignment in man coverage. Since Benton's eyes are often dialed in on the line, something else has caught his eye this summer: the athleticism and play-making ability of Mountaineers nose guard Darrien Howard.
While former nose guard Kyle Rose was known as a technician who could occupy two linemen and free up linebackers to make plays, Benton likes the ability Howard shows in making plays up front.
"(Keeping blockers off of linebackers) was one thing Kyle Rose was really good at in the scheme last year - keeping those centers from climbing," Benton said. "But I like for my nose to be able to make plays as well. Not saying that Kyle (Rose) didn't, but sometimes he made sure he just got those guys open, but if you have a chance to make a play, go make it. I want (the nose) to make a play just as much as I want to make a play. It's a race to the ball."
Part of the reason Howard is able to make big plays in the run game is that the 300 pounder came to West Virginia as a four-star linebacker and played the same mike backer position that Benton occupies now. While Howard has re-shaped his frame and developed his body for the rigors of playing defensive line in major Division 1 college football, he hasn't lost the speed and athleticism that caught the eye of the many schools that were competing for his services out of high school. Benton discussed the sneaky athleticism that Howard still maintains four yeas after making his position change.
"One thing I will say about Darrien, people may not give him credit for this, but he's very fast," Benton said. "Honestly I wouldn't put him out of the top 10 (fastest) players on the defense as far as running people down. He's really good at that. He always tells me, 'remember I used to play linebacker so I'm good at running people down. Darrien's really good at what he does and his effort will take him a long way."
While Benton praised Howard for his play making ability he also made a point to talk about the younger defensive linemen who are competing for spots behind the three seniors who have cemented their positions on the three-man front.
"I have been seeing some really good things (from the younger defensive linemen)," Benton said. "Reese (Donahue) has been doing a really good job, Adam Shuler has been doing a really good job and (Alec) Shriner has been doing a really good job getting in and working at the nose. Those guys are just coming along and understanding what we need of them and how this defense is supposed to be run. It's been coming together the last few days of camp."
Benton can identify with the development of the younger defenders because it wasn't long ago that he was in their shoes, learning the scheme and the intricacies of playing football at the highest level of college football. Benton finds himself as one of the leaders on this years defense, and he talked about his progression and what he has learned since stepping foot on campus.
"Where I have come a long a lot is mentally," Benton said. "One of the biggest things that I didn't really understand is the mental aspect is different in college. They always say the game is 90 percent mental. You realize it more when you get here and the talent level is different. (There are) a lot of plays (in college) you can't just let your talent take over because you're playing against talented players as well.
"Physically, my body is different. My body isn't the same as it was when I first came here. I think I'm more suited to play a full Big 12 game now."