While the restructuring process isn't quite as severe at linebacker than it is on the defensive line, there's still a great deal of productivity to replace as West Virginia tries to assemble an active, dependable group for the second level of the defense. There is an appreciable amount of experience to work with, but building consistency with some of those players will be a key task in preparations for the 2017 season.
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
STARTER: Al-Rasheed Benton is the obvious leader of this group, having been a valued performer and example-setter at linebacker for multiple seasons. Entering his senior year, he'll no doubt be a featured performer, but there will be even more pressure on him to help bring along other players who are at a variety of stages in their careers. One of those is David Long, whose potential is great but who must work to improve his consistency from play to play. He's just a redshirt sophomore, so it's not as if this is a major negative, but if he will need to follow the same sort of path as Benton in order to help anchor the Mountaineer 'backers.
CONTRIBUTOR: Xavier Preston could have been slotted as a returning starter, but there has just been too much inconsistency to do that. Although he's played in 32 games and has a many snaps as returning starters at other positions, he hasn't been able to nail down a starting job – again, due to consistency issues. The Mountaineers need him, along with Long, to clean up those problems, because if they do, they will provide WVU with more athleticism and speed on the outside than it has enjoyed in recent years. Hodari Christian doubled his career output with appearances in nine games last year, but much of that was on special teams, and he will face challenges from several players in the next category if he is to earn more snaps from scrimmage.
UNPROVEN: Adam Hensley, Brendan Ferns, Zach Sandwisch, Logan Thimons, Quondairus Qualls and Dylan Tonkery comprise a huge group of scholarship players who could jump into the rotation. Among them, Ferns, due to his showing before a knee injury last year, is getting much of the spotlight, but Qualls, a January juco arrival, and Hensley, who avoided a redshirt to see special teams action in 2016, are also primed to make pushes. That's not to discount the remaining trio, as both Thimons and Sandwisch are well-thought of, and Tonkery earned notice from the coaching staff for his early showing in the winter.
Shea Campbell, Luke Williams, Max Chefren and Jonah Campbell are all walk-ons who could make a push for special teams positions, but their numbers, in addition to the previous group, at least gives the Mountaineers a substantial pool of candidates for their linebacking rotation this fall.
The numbers, as mentioned above, spur competition and give WVU some breathing room in developing six or so players that are trusted on the field. Not every one has to hit for the Mountaineers to have a solid linebacking corps, but there's still a ton of development to go to approach last year's play. One of the goals is to get a unit with more speed, especially in cross-field pursuit and downfield drops – not to mention in rushing the quarterback. Qualls was brought in for the latter purpose, and it's been a continuing effort to get more speed on the field.
The problem there, if it can be considered one, is that WVU's best and most consistent performers haven't always been guys with 4.6 40-yard dash times or eye-popping athletic skills. Coaches will always opt for the guys that are in the right place the majority of the time over those that make one highlight play but yield more negative ones, and that has been the basis for some personnel decisions over the past few years. With this group, the potential is there for quicker hole-closing and decreased time in getting to the quarterback, but it has to be accompanied by metronomic regularity in the execution of assignments. That's the biggest aspect of the development of the linebackers this spring.
Linebackers are also suited to a variety of duties on special teams, and while the makeup of those units aren't set until this fall, this is the time of year when younger and developing players can make their case for inclusion. “playing in space” the ability to get downfield quickly, avoid blockers and make tackles are right in a 'backers' wheelhouse, so they often get first looks in this regard. While players might not lock up spots on special teams with their work in the spring, this is clearly a time to earn notice for the fall. With special teams, especially coverage and return squads, needing more help, the corps of linebackers will be evaluated on everything they do this spring to see if they are up to the task.
Previously In The Series: