Hands On

Defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich stresses the importance of hand position and technique to all of his linemen, but he has gotten a bonus from senior Jason Hardee.

While Kirelawich is teaching his pupils how to use their hands to fend off blocks and gain the upper hand (pardon the pun), Hardee, a converted tight end, has put his hands to even better use. No Mountaineer defensive lineman was better than Hardee last year at getting his hands up and knocking down passes. During the 2003 campaign, the California native showed the knack for getting his mitts into passing lanes as he swatted away a team-leading seven passes.

This spring, Hardee was right back in that groove, and turned in one of the standout plays of April when he picked off a pass an rumbled all the way for a touchdown. Hardee credits his time as a tight end, and his awareness of the passing game, for his ability to find the football on defense.

"I think playing tight end did help me," Hardee said at the conclusion of WVU's spring practice. "I'm an athlete out there. I see certain things out there, and I can adjust to the ball. I might do some things a little bit differently than someone else in the rush.

"As a tight end, you look at your quarterback's eyes sometimes and know where he's throwing the ball. I do the same thing on defense. I look at where he's going to throw it, and sometimnes I'll jump into the passing lane, because his eyes are going to tell you where he's going to throw the ball."

Of his spring pick, Hardee said it was "just a quick reaction kind of thing," but agrees that having hands used to catching the football doesn't hurt.

"I'm trying to do something to help my team. If I can't get to the passer, I'm going to try to get my hands on the ball and knock it down."

Of course, rushing the passer and getting to the quarterback are Hardee's first priorities. He admits that his coach isn't always thrilled with a knockdown.

"Sometimes Coach Bill Kirelawich lets me go, but I have to stay in the scheme, because if I don't that will mess everything up - it might cause me to lose contain. Sometimes when I bat the ball down, he'll mess with me and say that people who bat the ball down aren't getting a pass rush. But I look at it like it's a lesser of two evils. If I bat the ball down, that's good, but if I don't I have to be getting pressure.

"Sometimes I get into trying to bat the ball down too much, and I need to make sure I don't do that. I need a balance between that and getting to the passer."

Hardee certainly showed signs of keeping that balance last year. In addition to leading the linemen in pass breakups, he also recorded a team-high six sacks. His goals now are to increase his sack totals, get to the quarterback more, and also improve on other aspects of his game.

"I've tried to work extra hard on run stopping this spring. I still want to be the best pass rusher I can be. I know my role is going to be a little different this year," Hardee said as he anticipated his status as a starter and every-down player on the defensive line. "I'm not going to preserve myself for third downs."

Still, Hardee knows job one is improving the Mountaineer pass rush, which totalled only 17 takedowns last year.

"If we don't get any pressure on the quarterback, the secondary can only cover them for so long. If we can keep QBs in contain and get a good pass rush, then everything else will flow together. It's all on us."

Or, as one might say, it's all in good hands.

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