Tall Order

Coming into the spring, defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel wanted to make the spur and bandit positions more flexible, with the goal of allowing the defense to line up in different formations and show different coverages without changing personnel. There were a couple different ways of achieving that goal, according to Mountaineer assistant coach Bruce Tall.

The first was to cross-train players at both positions. While the spur has typically been more of a run support type player that is bigger, as he usually plays on the strong side of the offensive formation, Casteel and Tall wanted players that could perform at both positions. The poster boy for that, of course, is senior Mike Lorello, who starred at bandit as a sophomore before moving to spur for his junior year. After sitting out the spring to heal the broken arm he suffered in the Gator Bowl, Lorello is expected to be back at bandit for his final year in a Mountaineer uniform. However, that assignment won't keep him from occasionally sliding over to spur in order to take advantage of a matchup or show a different look to opposing offenses.

The second was to blur the lines between the two positions. By creating a mix and match of duties (for example, the bandit might play more run support, while the spur might drop into coverage a bit more often), WVU's defensive mentors hope to add to the burden that opposing coaches will have to bear as they game plan for what could be a shifting and confusing Mountaineer defense.

"These guys are more interchangeable now," Tall said as he summed up what was, in his eyes, a successful spring. "We have guys that can play both positions, and that allows you to different things with your alignments. We could almost play with a ‘left' and a ‘right' [rather than the spur and the bandit], and still keep the unique look of the 3-3-5. The flexibility we have, and the depth we developed over the spring has allowed us to do that."

Of course, it's not going to be chaos at those hybrid safety/linebacker spots. The spur will continue to favor the strong side of the formation much of the time, with the bandit on the backside of the offense. However, the progress made by Tall's charges over the past few months should allow the defense to mix things up. WVU could show the same formation on defense, yet execute two entirely different coverages, or it could rotate players into different spots for more different looks. And that doesn't even take into account nickel and dime packages, which will also be evident.

"A lot of that depends on the offense we are playing, the speed of their receivers and how well we feel we match up with the safeties playing on receivers," Tall said of the decision to employ different personnel packages. "But, we want to play as many guys as we can, so that's an opportunity to get those guys on the field as much as we can. That's also a goal."

With four available cornerbacks to go with his solid contingent of Lorello, Eric Wicks, Ridwan Malik, Leyonne Pryce, Akeem Jackson and Aaron Meckstroth, Tall believes he has enough pieces to mix and match against opposing offenses, and also to provide necessary rests for his starters. In previous seasons, there were some drop-offs in talent and performance between the first teamers and the subs, but Tall now has a group of players he isn't afraid to put on the field.

"We are excited about the depth we have developed," Tall said. "You want to put the burden on your best players, but we want to rest those guys some too. I know guys like Mike Lorello don't want to hear about coming out of the game, but I have explained to him that taking a couple series off per game will help make him a better player. There's no question in my mind on that part.

"Coach Rodriguez' philosophy, even more this year, is to play as many guys as possible," the gravelly-voiced defensive coach continued. "It's a great way to build chemistry, because guys want to play. He believes strongly in that. He wants to keep the players excited and involved, and playing time is the way to do it."

Put together some new wrinkles, more depth, and a motivated squad that sees lots of chances to get on the field, and there's no doubt hopes are high for a banner year from Tall's players. With the help of an equally deep and talented defensive line in front of them, West Virginia's edge defenders could be in line for a productive fall.

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