With the initial install, well, stalling, coordinator Tony Gibson has elected to take a half step back in securing the foundation before continuing to build the coming version of the Mountaineer defense. It's not exactly a surprise considering WVU lost all three starters along the defensive line, along with cornerbacks Maurice Fleming, Antonio Crawford and Rasul Douglas - who tied for the national lead with eight interceptions - and strongside 'backer Justin Arndt, the team's leading tackler at 84 stops.
"We need a bunch more practices and work," Gibson said "We are getting closer. Right now, we are going to stop installing at this point and go back and revisit some things, reinstall some things and just creep through the rest of the spring and try to get these guys dialed in to what we need them to do. Again, we have four, five, six, maybe seven guys who aren’t even here right now or can’t practice for some reason who we will be counting on. We have a lot of work to do, and every day that we take reps we are getting somebody better."
That list includes all-Big 12 free safety Dravon Askew-Henry and linebacker Brendan Ferns, who are still working back from knee injuries which sidelined them last season, along with others who are injured like linemen Adam Shuler and Jeffery Pooler. When the Mountaineers lined up with the first team defense in its Tuesday practice, it used this initial line-up: DE: Jon Lewis, NT: Xavier Pegues, DE: Reese Donahue, CB: Elijah Battle, CB: Hakeem Bailey, Bandit: Toyous Avery, LB: David Long, LB: Al-Rasheed Benton, LB: Hodari Christian, Spur: Kyzir White & Marvin Gross, FS: Jovanni Stewart.
That's an especially thin unit up front, where West Virginia lost nose tackle Darrien Howard and ends Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown. The injury to Jalen Harvey has further limited numbers, and it's far to say the line is being piecemealed together of now, which isn't a concern in spring as long as the development continues it progress. The corners are also in the midst of a rebuild, with a series of players getting reps in an effort to sort their expected roles going into the summer.
"We are playing a bunch of different guys right now just trying to get them in the mix," Gibson said. "Guys who are in the mix right now are Hakeem Bailey. He is a kid who has made a bunch of plays, and he is very solid. He doesn’t say a whole lot, which I like. He just goes out and plays. Elijah Battle, which is the only guy in that room who has meaningful snaps, so I like where he is. Mike Daniels, is a kid who had a very good offseason. He probably had the best offseason of anybody in that room. I like where he is.
"Jordan Adams is a kid who needs to step up, but he continues to get better. I like where he is. (Redshirt freshman Sean) Mahone and Jake Long are guys who we are counting on, and they are doing some good things. We don’t know if we are comfortable with it yet, but where they are right now, we are in good shape. We will continue to keep building it and see how many guys we can play. It would be nice to get five or six guys, for sub packages and to just give a guy a breather."
The positives are that West Virginia has talent which will be ready for the fall in Askew-Henry and Ferns, which have proven themselves capable, even if in Ferns' case it was merely in fall camp. And because of the depth built via recruiting, as well as junior college and graduate transfers, the Mountaineers are replacing seniors with upperclassmen. Both Battle and Daniels are seniors, while Xavier Pegues is a fifth-year player, as are Christian, Gross, Benton, Commodore and Lewis. Avery, Fields and Askew-Henry are juniors. That's 11 upperclass players, giving WVU more developed bodies and physicality. That should pay dividends if Gibson can simply get his entire unit healthy and able to push through the fall camp intact.
"I thought we finished the week really well on Saturday; we got after it a little bit in a scrimmage," Gibson sad. "It was good to see our guys make some plays. We felt really good after the scrimmage on Saturday with where we are. Now what we have to do is to continue to get better. We can’t stay the same, and obviously we can’t go backwards. Right now, I like where we are, and we have to get better. Guys still need to step up, and I think they are getting the message right now with what we are doing and what we need them to do."