The entire starting defensive line departed following the 2016 season, taking 78 starting assignments and loads of experience with them. Returning are a trio of players with respectable experience, but behind them is a large from of players who have yet to see the field at all, or in anything past a handful of snaps.
Remember our base classification system:
Starter: Players with established Division I starting experience
Contributor: Players with significant backup time at their primary position
Unproven: Those with only special teams experience or minimal playing time
CONTRIBUTOR: Adam Shuler grew into a good backup as 2016 progressed, and earned one starting assignment due to an injury. He'll have to make another such quantum leap this spring, and he could be the best candidate to become a leader and seize a full-time starting job after contributing 34 tackles last year. Jon Lewis has been the ultimate team player for the Mountaineers, and could be a backup at all three positions on the front line, but can he make the leap to push to a starting job outside? He has 12 tackles in 26 career games, and will be counted on to provide both leadership and increased on-field performance. Reese Donahue made the very difficult jump to become a solid backup as a true freshman, and his offseason is as much about gaining strength to combat Big 12 tackles on a consistent basis. He contributed 12 tackles a season ago as he saw his workload gradually increase.
UNPROVEN: Junior college signees Ezekiel Rose and Jalen Harvey are both being counted on to provide immediate help at end and nose, respectively, but that can't be confused with WILL help. Harvey has the bulk that West Virginia has lacked in the middle more often than not over the past several years, but he has to prove that he can produce on this level. The same is true for Rose on the outside, where pass rushing assistance is, as always, a priority.
Many of the returnees along the defensive front are familiar names to fans, but that far outwieghs their productivity. Junior Jaleel Fields (nose) and senior Xavier Pegues (end) have been in the program for a while, but neither was on the field last year, and only Fields has any playing experience at all, appearing in four games while making eight tackles in 2015. Defensive end Jeffery Pooler redshirted last year, and apparent academic issues have kept him off the depth chart this spring. That's crucial missed time, and could weigh heavily on his potential development.
Also in the mix are walk-ons Jonathan Szymcek (end) and D.J. Carozza (nose) , with the former entering his redshirt freshman year, while the latter is in his final season as a Mountaineer.
With no players in the “Starter” class returning, developing leaders and stalwarts along the defensive front is the biggest task facing assistant coach Bruce Tall. While head coach Dana Holgorsen maintains that the spring is more about individual skill development than unit building, some of the latter must occur during the March and April – otherwise, the Mountaineers will be behind the 8-ball come fall. West Virginia needs at least one player at each of the three defensive line spots to establish himself as a starter and become a dependable performer. There are lots of contestants, but lots of questions for them to answer. It might be bucking the odds to expect breakthroughs at all three spots, but that's what the Mountaineers need if they are to approach the performance of the 2016 group.
At nose, Jalen Harvey and Jaleel Fields are expected to be the primary candidates. Harvey has a bit of a size advantage, but Fields has time in the program. Which will be more beneficial in grabbing the starting job? In reality, both must develop quickly and be ready to play. WV could roll another lineman into this position if necessary, and could experiment with players such as Lewis inside, but in reality the Mountaineers need to go two for two with Harvey and Fields. Fields has been limited as he continues to recover from his preseason injury of a year ago, but it would be helpful if can at least participate through drills as the spring progresses.
The experience factor isn't quite as dire at end, but there is still plenty of playing time available. Shuler and Donahue showed great promise with their play a year ago, and they could wind up as the starters, but WVU doesn't need to have positions won by default. Lewis could swing as a backup on either side, but after that it's back to the unproven category. Rose is a pass-rush disruptor that could help out wide, but must prove he can go up against 300-pound tackles, while Pegues will have to show that a two-year absence from the field isn't an insurmountable obstacle. Finally, there's a wild card in Stone Wolfley, who moved over from tight end. His height could definitely help on the outside, but it's definitely square one for him in terms of learning the ins and outs of the system in the college game.
In sum, this spring is huge in terms of development for this unit. This will be a recurring theme across most of the defense, but without even one returning anchor to build around, every day of practice and preparation is key for a group that will have to improve and produce in a hurry in order to equal last year's output.
Previously In The Series: