Work in Progress

With solid veterans like Pat Liebig, Keilen Dykes, and Craig Wilson, the defensive line is one of West Virginia's most experienced positions. The emergence of one of the line's youngest players could pay off big as the Mountaineers continue their 12 round fight.

When the Mountaineer defense took the field for the first time Thursday night, it was James Ingram, the Cleveland Heights, Oh. native, who started at defensive end. Ingram will likely be in that same spot when the West Virginia defense takes the field at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday afternoon for a 4:30 tilt with Conference USA foe East Carolina.

In just a year and change in Morgantown, Ingram has already shown a lot of promise, potential, and skill from his defensive end position. During his redshirt year, he was given the Danny Van Etten Award as the defensive player of the year for West Virginia's scout team. And, as noted above, he's claimed a starting job just three games into his rookie year.

"It's crazy. I can't explain the feeling," said Ingram. "It's a fast paced program, so you've got to keep up with them. I think that's what I've been doing."

As a senior at Cleveland Heights High, Ingram totaled 64 tackles and 18 sacks. It's the latter category in which the Mountaineers are still lacking as a team in 2006. Thus far, a sack has not been recorded. The Ohioan admits that he was close on Thursday night, but as the old saying goes "Close only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes."

"I could smell it I was so close," he recalled. "It was so disappointing. They keep drilling in us that we need more sacks, and I'll be right there, but (the quarterback) will throw the ball away and I can't get to him. I'm trying my hardest."

With many Mountaineer fans are clogging up message boards and call in shows complaining about the lack of sacks, Ingram is preaching patience.

"Our defensive pass rush is always there," he says. "It hasn't been gone. Different games call for different things, and we're developing as a defense."

During his recruitment, Ingram flew a bit under the radar. He had offers from major conference schools in the midwest such as Cincinnati, Iowa, Kansas, and Minnesota. All of those schools are respectable programs, and had he ended up at any of those he probably would have gone on to have a solid career. There was something about West Virginia, though, that stood out to Ingram.

"Everyone else came to me and said ‘You can change the program, you can do this, you can do that, it's all about you," said the 6'4" 265 pound former high school basketball standout. "West Virginia came and just asked me ‘Do you want to play football for us?' They were more humble, they were a family. They didn't tell me I could change anything. When I met (West Virginia defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich), he said ‘I want you here. I like how you come off of the ball, and I want you here.' There wasn't anybody saying ‘You can have your name in the big lights' or anything like that. He came and gave me the straight facts, and I appreciated that."

Like most new students coming to Morgantown from a big city, there was a bit of culture shock. Coming from Cleveland, he was leaving behind Tower City for the Towers dorms. He was also moving to a place with a color he was unfamiliar with: green.

"There was grass here, and I had never seen this much grass or the hills," he said with a chuckle. "It's a big adjustment and you've got to make that transition. Right now, though, I'm starting to call this home."

One thing about Cleveland that he won't miss is all the Browns fans. Ironically, Ingram grew up in a household of Steelers fans.

"My friends hated me for it," he laughed. "My teachers hated me for it too. Since I was little though, we've bled black and gold. Over Super Bowl weekend when all the Steelers fans were all over (Morgantown), I knew that I needed to be here."

Back on the football field, Ingram is still a young pup. His best football is still a ways ahead of him, but this early experience will be crucial for his development. He's still about 15-20 pounds from where Mountaineer coaches would like him to play at. Though he's a bit undersized for now, he's too good to keep on the bench.

"I think he's going to be a good football player. I like James Ingram," said Kirelawich. "He's a quick learner. He's another Keilen Dykes in the making. He's not where Keilen is yet, but he's basically a lot like Keilen.

"He's by no means a finished work. He's a work in progress is what he is."

Ingram played on an odd front in his high school team's 3-4 defensive scheme. To the naked eye, that may make it seem like an easier adjustment to West Virginia's 3-3-5 attacking defense. According to James, it's quite the contrary.

"It's a whole new system. Playing end and rushing the edge is still rushing the edge. As far as going from two men on you in a double team, though anything can come at you in the 3-3-5."

Under the tutelage of Kirelawich, he's gotten more and more comfortable in West Virginia's system. He's also probably lost a little bit of his hearing, as West Virginia's defensive line mentor is one of the coaching staff's loudest instructors.

"He demands perfection, and you have to give it to him," Ingram says bluntly. "I don't think I can see it any other way. He's always on me, and I have to have that. It would be hard to excel if I didn't have that."

If you've ever been to a West Virginia practice, you've undoubtedly seen and heard Kirelawich running his charges through drills. Standing over them in a full sweatsuit, water bottle in hand, ball cap on head, and towel draped over his shoulder, "Kirlav" could pass as a boxing trainer. Given that head coach Rich Rodriguez has spoken of this season as a 12 round fight, the boxing trainer analogy seems to fit.

Just as a young fighter must prepare relentlessly for his next opponent, Ingram is trying to improve everyday.

"I need to work on staying low, and getting bigger," he says. "I have to learn to work the edge even more than I have been. Most of all, I have to stay focused on the big goal, which is winning each game one at a time. There are a lot of distractions, but staying focused is the main thing."

As well as the offense has played the first three games, West Virginia looks like an elite team. The defense must play better if the Mountaineers are to capture their fourth straight Big East title. It all starts up front on the line. With Ingram now in the mix, the line is deeper than it was at the beginning of the season. And the better he gets, the better chance West Virginia has of delivering a knockout.

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