With Xavier Pegues out until at least late October after offseason shoulder surgery, and former back-up nose tackle Jaleel Fields gone for the season with an ACL tear, West Virginia's once robust defensive line depth has taken major hits. The coaching staff has attempted to offset that with a series of moves, starting with bringing Jon Lewis back over from offense.
Lewis, still listed on the official team roster as a tight end/fullback, is the reserve behind end Christian Brown entering game week. The Morgantown High grad has flipped between sides of the ball throughout his three-plus year career, but seems set to remain on the defensive line throughout this season. WVU has also tried to ready a handful of younger players who have both the raw talent and developmental aspect to contribute quickly. Thee three names to watch there are Adam Shuler, Alec Shriner and state native Reese Donahue. Shuler (6-4, 267 lbs.) is at end behind Noble Nwachukwu, while Shriner (6-4, 300 lbs.) has elevated himself to the back-up nose guard slot behind Darrien Howard. Donahue (6-4, 260 lbs.) is a fifth defensive end, but is expected to see time, according to coordinator Tony Gibson.
"We’ve been rotating," line coach Bruce Tall said. "There has been about five total guys in the rotation, so we feel pretty good about that. Keeping them fresh and being able to utilize that many numbers right now. Shriner will be in the nose and Shuler will be in at the end, and Reese has been in the mix with us and it has also been Jonny Lewis, so (there are) five at the end position. I feel real good about our numbers. I have the other players ready and they’re going to keep working to get them ready; we’re really young at that. It’s a matter of how much time can you get to get them ready. We’ll continue to get their growth and keep working with them."
West Virginia has six other defensive lineman on the roster, but four of those are true freshmen. Of tha group, only Jeffery Pooler has a chance for time this season; the other three aren't likely to develop quickly enough to compete for time. There's also redshirt frosh John Groh and junior D.J. Carozza, who could play in an emergency situation. Tall said he isn't concerned about players like Donahue or Pooler struggling with the number of games and snaps at the Big 12 level, despite both playing at the prep level last year.
"I’ve been really impressed with both of them," Tall said. "I think it’s like anything else, they’re going to get stronger as time goes on. Mentally they’re way ahead of the curve. To test those guys at this stage in their career is very impressive for what they can grasp. The harsh thing is to be able to take it from the meeting room to the field because of how fast we go, so you just have to be able to process things really quick. Those two guys are sharp, so they can process it."
Gibson seemed pleased with the defensive progression, especially considering there have been significant injuries at all three levels. Besides Pegues and Fields, back-up middle linebacker Brendan Ferns and All-Big 12 free safety Dravon Askew-Henry are out for the season after suffering ACL tears. That has weakened the Mountaineers up the middle, though Gibson said the timing of the injuries helped as West Virginia wasn't in the midst of its season.
"The biggest thing I see with these kids right now is they are hungry and eager," Gibson said. "They want to be good and they’re preparing themselves to go out and practice and preparing for game like situations and I’m excited about where they are at right now."