With injuries and suspensions plaguing WVU's linebackers, the 2007 season opened with speed, depth and playmaking ability questions. With six games down and an excellent 5-1 record to show for it, the Mountaineer stoppers have been a big part of West Virginia's first half success.
Some of those concerns were, of course, ill-founded. Questions about pursuit speed and the ability to master varied schemes have been put to rest, and the team approach that the Mountaineers have used to put different players into positions where they can best bring their skills to bear has been a successful one.
Some of the credit for that certainly goes to the players, but some must also be doled out to defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jeff Casteel, who has absorbed more than his fair share of criticism for the defense's supposed shortcomings. Now that his unit has moved into several statistical top 20 categories in the nation, it's also fair that he and his charges get praise as well.
WVU's linebackers have contributed mightily to West Virginia's charge up the defensive charts. Using as many as seven different linebackers, plus assorted safeties in third down passing situations, WVU has put the clamps on opposing offenses. A look at West Virginia's 55-14 win over Syracuse illustrates that in spades, as West Virginia's top four tackles were linebackers. Marc Magro, Reed Williams, Bobby Hathaway and Johnny Holmes combined for 22 tackles in the contest, helping limit the Orange to just 3.8 yards per play. The hard hits doled out by the Mountaineer backers helped force six Syracuse fumbles, and although WVU was able to jump on just one, there's no doubt that the aggressive play made a difference in the contest.
Magro, who was one of those undergoing speed scrutiny in the preseason, has thrown that back in the face of his detractors. He racked up yet another sack to help thwart one Orange drive, and had five solo tackles (seven overall) from his outside spot. Reed Williams, who does nothing but make plays all over the field, added six stops, while Bobby Hathaway turned in one of the most efficient performances by a Mountaineer defender in some time. Despite playing behind Williams at the mike linebacker spot, and thus seeing a limited number of snaps, Hathaway recorded five tackles (all solo) and seemed to be around the ball on every snap.
The parade didn't end there. Johnny Holmes and Mortty Ivy,, combined for another seven stops, and Pat Lazear and Anthony Leonard each chipped in a tackle. Leonard's, which came on a third down passing situation as part of West Virginia's SWAT package, thwarted another Orange drive.
If that were the complete list at linebacker, it would already be an impressive one, but WVU has even more in its arsenal. J.T. Thomas, who would likely have been a starter if not for his legal issue, has earned some playing time since his return, and like Lazear has the ability to be a force on special teams. Ovid Goulbourne, who has battled hamstring problems throughout his entire West Virginia career, would likewise be at least a solid contributor were he not spending more time in the training room than on the field. Add it all up, and West Virginia is as deep at the position as it has ever been under Rich Rodriguez.
The nice thing about West Virginia's linebacking corps is that it has players with a wide variety of skills. Magro, one of the toughest players to ever don the Gold and Blue, run stuffs with the best of defenders and is getting to the quarterback with regularity on the pass rush. Williams' pursuit skills allow him to make tackles from sideline to sideline, while Hathaway's competitive fire and excellent tackling ability make him a tough foe to get past. Ivy has been a tremendous competitor, and has blended his skills to become a great all-around defender against the run and the pass.
The key, of course, is for the Mountaineers to get the right combination of players on the field at the correct times, but so far that hasn't been a problem. With the backups getting appreciable snaps and the starters receiving just the right amount of rest, West Virginia can probably look forward to even more outstanding performances during the second half of the season.