"If I were a coach, I would (throw against us)," corner Antonio Lewis said. "You lose all your starters and leaders. I would, but I don't take it as a negative thing because we have young guys. It is one of those things."
West Virginia held foes to 109.7 yards per game rushing in 2005, a number that again seems attainable this year. But it also allowed 201.1 yards per game passing, including a coincidental 277 to both Louisville in a 46-44 triple overtime win and Georgia in the 38-35 Sugar Bowl victory. The teams combined to complete 51 of 82 passes, and a trio of touchdowns – two from 30-plus yards – were scored by the Bulldogs via the air in a late rally that saw them pull as close as the final score before the Mountaineers ran out the final five minutes.
Even old rivals Pitt and Virginia Tech seemed to toy with West Virginia's bend-but-don't-break odd stack scheme. Panther quarterback Tyler Palko hit for 308 yards and Tech's Mike Vick completed 15 of 17 before adding injury to insult when he forearmed secondary coach Tony Gibson in the back of the head on the Mountaineer sideline.
The hope is that WVU can recruit enough players that fit the style so that the 3-3-5 defense can morph from that aforementioned bending, bending, bending to an attacking corps that brings multiple blitzes while the corners play shut-down defense on the outside receivers and the bandit and spur safety positions combo with the linebackers to provide enough confusion in coverage to befuddle opposing signalcallers. That goal has yet to be fully realized, obviously, but WVU is bottling the run well, the Cardinal rule of defense against anybody but U of L.
"We've got to look at some things, both pressure and coverage-wise," Rodriguez said. "We gave up some big plays in the bowl game and some other games. But we are not going to change the focus. We still want to make every team one-dimensional. Of course, everybody wants to do that. But I think it says a lot that (defensive coordinator) Jeff Casteel has been able to take this scheme and make it his own, make it fit our players. He is obviously a very good defensive coach."
And one hired by Rodriguez because of the head coach's struggles against Casteel when both coached in the WVIAC, Rodriguez for Glenville and Casteel at Shepherd. Gibson, also with WVIAC ties as a defensive back at Glenville under Rodriguez from 1991-94, faces his stiffest challenge yet in finding the right combination of Lewis, Larry Williams, Kent Richardson and former defensive back-turned-wideout Vaughn Rivers, who is back on the defensive side again. Gibson is also working with newcomers Greg Davis, Robert Williams, Boogie Allen and Guesly Dervil.
Dervil has made the most impressive showing of the newcomers to date, and seems best able to help West Virginia this season. Davis came in out of shape and has tweaked a hamstring and Williams and Allen still need time in a major Division I program to play. Dervil, who originally signed with Illinois, is 20 years old. He was an especially solid sign for West Virginia after it lost Scout.com four-star corner Ryan Brinson to academics because of the new Big East prop rule.
"(Dervil) is a pretty physical kid," Rodriguez said. "He is aggressive. That is why he will be a good special teams guy. He seems to have a knack and a nose for the ball. It's hard to tell with six practices, but he is a little older, too. He didn't graduate last year, he graduated two years ago, so he is not a 17-year old kid."
Richardson, a 6-0, 195 pound freshman, is vying for the backup boundary corner spot behind Lewis, a 5-10, 190-pounder. That is the more physical corner side, one that must play the run in tighter space and often tackle tight ends. Richardson's chiseled physic – he was a state weightlifting champion – and speed (state titlest in the 4x400 relay) make him and solid fit here.
The field corner is to the wide side and often must face a team's best wideout in a lot of space. WVU's best coverage players, Larry Williams and backup Vaughn Rivers, man this spot. Both run well, and have a smaller body-size (6-1, 185 and 5-9, 170, respectively) than Lewis and Richardson.
"We have to pay attention to details more, but we are coming around," Richardson said. "The coaches will put us in position to make plays. The alignments and stuff like that, we are young, so we have to pay attention to what the coach says. We watch film and we know how close we are, if we are too far or lined up too deep to give away blitzes or drops or jams or whatever."
WVU should also have a better pass rush this season. It moved Johnny Holmes from linebacker to the spur safety position because of LB depth and to utilize his coverage skills. Eric Wicks, the lone returner in the secondary, slid over to bandit. Both of those positions, in addition to the 12-player deep defensive line and linebackers, will be used at least pat of the time in the pass rush. Casteel won't call many sets in which fewer than four players are rushing, and the Mountaineers will often bring six, using disguised packages to fool quarterbacks – one of the strengths of the odd stack look.
"That comes into play," Richardson said of the blitz. "You have an experienced linebackers and D-line. They know what they are doing. All we have to do is make plays. They will have the good rush going on, and the ball is going to come out. We just have to make the play."
Lewis, who will also again return punts, agreed, noting that the defensive backfield is trying to eliminate additional pressure and simply follow their instincts and what they have been taught.
"Our coaches get us mentally and physically ready every day, so that aspect will be covered," he said. "We just have to go out there and perform. I just go play. (You can't) start letting outside things affect you and putting unneeded pressure on yourself. But I do put pressure on myself to represent my school and the state. It's not just all about me. I use that as motivation."
Said Gibson: "I love the players and couldn't be happier with them. I give them a 10 for their attitude. But where we are right now, it's a three. We have a long way to go."