Starting to Emerge

One of four different starters in West Virginia's defensive lineup on Thursday, spur Johnny Holmes played very well in the Mountaineers' 45-24 pasting of Maryland on ESPN.

Holmes started the game at the spur position, which was held down by Eric Wicks the first two games. Wicks moved over to bandit, which strengthened the weak side of WVU's 3-3-5 defense – a target of all of WVU's first three opponents. Wicks responded with his best game of the season, and the Mountaineers didn't lose much at the spot he vacated, as Holmes helped West Virginia hold the Terps to 3.7 yards per rush. By getting two bigger, more physical players on the field, the Mountaineer defense was able to combat Maryland's bigger offensive line, which hoped to control the game by dominating the ball and time of possession, and in the process wear down the smaller Mountaineers. That didn't happen, partly because the big pair stood up well to the Terps repeated running forays.

"We've talked about it being a good package with us on the field at the same time," said Holmes, whose measured speech and laid-back demeanor hides an aggressive on-field persona. "We've been looking forward to the coach putting us in there together. It was great to finally be able to get out there together."

Holmes wasn't just effective against the run, however. Blitzing several times from his spur position, he narrowly missed recording sacks on two different occasions against dinking-and-dunking Terp quarterback Sam Hollenbach, who threw quick passes from three- and five-step drops for much of the game. Although he didn't get the sack he was looking for, he forced the Terrapin quarterback to get rid of the ball early on several occasions, forcing incompletions that the conservative Maryland offense could ill-afford. With the visitors trying to mount drives with numerous short passes, a pair of incompletions on a series was often enough to halt the Terps – and that's just what happened on several sequences throughout the lengthy evening.

"I just came just a little to slow, and I just missed sacks by a step or two," Holmes lamented of the missed chances for takedowns. "But I can tell he was affected by them. I can see his feet start to move when he sees me coming."

Holmes didn't just jump-start the WVU pass rush, however. He was all over the field, recording five tackles, including 1 ½ behind the line for a total of six yards of losses. He also got back into coverage well for his first start, and had a pass breakup to show for his efforts there.

Pass coverage is something new for the big, speedy Holmes, who played linebacker in high school and early in his WVU career. In moving to spur, he has a better chance to utilize his speed in coverage, but he also has new skills to master to become completely comfortable at the position.

"At linebacker, you can play downhill more," said Holmes. "At spur you deal with tight ends and play in space more and cover a lot more, so it can be kind of hard to move from coming downhill to make the tackle on the run to reading and backing up. Backing up and playing in space are things I have to get used to. In high school, I didn't have to know too much about coverages, but now I have to learn those. I do think my [pass] coverage has been pretty good because of my speed. If I make a mistake, I am quick enough to get back."

With Holmes getting some valuable experience against a quality foe, West Virginia is now better positioned at spur and bandit to combat differing offensive strategies. Teams attempting to load up and pound the ball on the weak side will now see the more physically imposing Eric Wicks in front of them at bandit, with Holmes providing even more strength at spur. And the Mountaineers can also counter different offensive approaches by moving Wicks back to spur and inserting Charles Pugh at bandit, where he started the first two games. This flexibility also helps ease the loss of Ridwan Malik, who remains sidelined with a hip strain.

Given his relaxed demeanor after the game, it was difficult to tell what sort of emotions he went through when he learned he had earned a start for this week. However, when asked to describe his thoughts, it didn't take long to realize that the Rockledge, Fla. native was fired up for his first starting experience, even though he has been on the field plenty of times on WVU's special teams since coming to the Mountain State a year ago.

"Monday, our coach came in the meeting room and said that Eric Wicks was switching positions, and everybody started looking around to figure out who was going to start at spur, and then it was announced that Johnny Holmes would be starting there. So, I've been excited for a few days. When I got out there, I was really excited and ready to go. I just wanted to make plays."

Holmes made enough to give West Virginia another defensive weapon to deploy, whether it's against the run or the pass. More of the same will make the Mountaineers even tougher to defeat down the road.


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