Crook was often asked the most basic of questions over the last two seasons, namely what he thought of an opposing team's defensive line. It was a legit - if intentionally open-ended - inquiry, and one that often left the WVU assistant in a lurch for new terminology. The Parkersburg, W.Va., native is nothing if not straight-forward, and found that, well, if nearly every Big 12 foe was indeed big, strong and physical, there wasn't much point in saying they were sizable, possessed great tenacity and were quite strapping, sturdy and muscular.
A rose by any other name, after all.
In the case of this weekend's foe in SEC opponent Missouri, Crook's assessment couldn't be more spot on. Despite the Tigers being down two potential starters, the trench is as talented as all but the absolute top level of the Big 12. Missouri lived off its defense last season, one that surrendered just 16.2 points (6th FBS) and 302 yards (9th FBS) per game while finishing second in the FBS in tackles for loss. The main component of the latter stat was end Walter Brady. As a freshman last season, Brady tied for the team lead with seven sacks, and led SEC freshman in combined sacks and tackles for loss with 12.5. He was dismissed for a violation of team rules, while starting tackle Harold Brantley, who missed last season due to injuries suffered in a car accident, failed to meet academic qualifications.
One would think that more than enough to throw the proverbial bucket of cold water on preseason hopes. But it's done little more than damper the expectations as UM returns five others with starting experience, including end Charles Harris, a second-team All-SEC pick a season ago. Harris (6-3, 225 lbs.) tied with Brady with seven sacks while leading the SEC in tackles for loss with 18.5; He will be working against WVU sophomore left tackle Yodny Cajuste.
"He's rushed off the edge against some of the best tackles in the country," Crook said. "This guy has played against good, good players. We've played against good players. I am anxious to see how Yodny goes out and approaches the game mentally. If he approaches it the right way then I think we will be happy with what we see."
Harris will pair with transfer Jordan Herald (6-2, 265 lbs.), a former walk-on who worked himself into a starting spot during the fall. Herald figures to see a lot of Marcell Lazard (6-6, 308 lbs.) who won the starting right tackle job in the fall, getting the nod over redshirt freshman Colton McKivitz. McKivitz will also play, along with reserve Grant Lingafelter, who will back-up starting left guard Tony Matteo. Matteo was slotted into the first five when Adam Pankey was suspended for the season opener, meaning the Mountaineers have scrambled to make adjustments in the last few weeks as well.
"There's not much of a difference," Orlosky said of the play of Matteo and Pankey. "Both of them have played a lot. Adam has started more games than Tony, but obviously Tony has had a significant amount of playing time. I feel as comfortable with Tony as I do Adam. Tony has played center before and so he sees the same things I do. Once Pankey comes back, we have seven guys ready to play. If you have those guys who can come in the game and give guys a break, that's really helpful. I feel really good about where we are depth-wise now."
At least after this game. Problem is, Missouri will attack West Virginia's interior line with senior tackle Rickey Hatley (6-4, 320 lbs.) and junior A.J. Logan (6-2, 325 lbs.). Add in the pair's excellent size and solid agility, and Mizzou has the speed at the ends and the physicality in the middle to challenge West Virginia.
"They're big up front," Orlosky said. "They play hard, they stay low. They've got good leverage, so we have to make sure we do our jobs. They are bigger than what we are used to (in the Big 12) and so we have to do a good job with leverage and getting up underneath guys. They stunt a lot and their linebackers have played a lot. They are an experienced defense. They have a lot going for them."
That's not to imply West Virginia doesn't. The Mountaineers have arguably the best offensive line in the Big 12, and one with a Rimington Award candidate and a combined 84 career starts returning. Factor in UM's two senior linebackers in Michael Scherer (Mike 'backer; team-high 93 tackles last season) and Donavin Newsom (Sam; 63 tackles, 6.5 for loss), and the Tigers remain talent-rich, even without fifth-round NFL pick Kentrell Brothers, now with the Minnesota Vikings.
"It's huge," Crook said of the challenge. "But it's what you want. It's why you come to a place like West Virginia. You're going to play against great opponents week in and week out. Our guys are real excited about the challenge. I think they want to go out and show a little bit of themselves as well. ... Especially when you've got an older group, you think you know how they are going to play and approach each game. There's usually not a lot of surprises. I think we are going to be a tough physical group. We put a lot of emphasis on pass protection and improving the pocket for the quarterback to stand back there. I'm real excited to go see that, how our emphasis has worked and how our guys respond to that."