That's pacified the coaching staff, in terms of breaking the Miami native. Dingle, as a transfer from Florida, blatantly failed in his initial attempts to fit into West Virginia's odd stack scheme. An outside linebacker with the Gators, Dingle was slid into the front three in the stack because of his speed and quickness off the edge. The undersized Mountaineers, lacking linemen, knew they had a player in the now-6-3, 270-pounder. What they didn't count on was Dingle's tendency to play his own game rather than that of the team.
He bucked the system, fighting off initial attempts at instruction. He had success in the past purely with ability, and he believed he could again. He wore his dreadlocks, battled the staff and, at one point, was thought to be little more than the typical athlete who never achieves because of his selfishness.
"Johnny went home for Christmas last year and he had pretty much fought the system," position coach Bill Kirelawich said. "Had the long hair and did a lot of what he wanted to do. The biggest percentage of the time now, he's doing what he is supposed to and it is paying off. I don't know if he had an epiphany at home or what."
Dingle insists nothing changed, but there were clear indicators going into the Gator Bowl. He consistently executed his assignment and didn't leave open slots on the field just to chase down quarterbacks. If he was to seal gaps and not penetrate them, he began to do so. Slowly, the player with the NFL logo tattooed on the back of his right hand started playing like one.
"John's gotta understand he is going to get everything he wants out of football, as long as he does it within the framework of the defense," Kirelawich said. "He starts getting outside is when he is going to have a problem. There is plenty of room for him to do a lot of good things within our package. Some of his extracurricular stuff is just him being him. He is a personality. He is an engaging guy. He is a good kid. A lot of that is John putting his personal stamp on stuff, which boarders on freelancing. When it becomes freelancing, then I have to jump him."
Which has happened this season. But Dingle, who shaved his head in what was - without him even knowing it - a symbolic gesture, has surrendered a lot of his past me-first play and he is beginning to make more of an impact because of it. He had a sack in West Virginia's 28-23 win over then-No. 22 Cincinnati last week. He continually harassed the Bearcat offensive tackles, and he pressured quarterback Ben Mauk enough that the two got into a almost a conversation at times – though any discussion with Dingle is largely a monologue, even when he speaks about himself.
"That's Johnny being Johnny," he says. "I like having fun in whatever I do. That's my game. I let you know when I make a play. If it gets in their head, it gets in their head. I'm not a shy person. You know, I didn't really know Mauk had that much speed. I told him, ‘Boy, you faster than you look on film.'"
The personality still peeks – and occasionally barges – through at times. Even head coach Rich Rodriguez acknowledges in an era of players adept at personal attention, Dingle brings more than his share to himself. That nearly happened again against Cincinnati, when Dingle ate a small candy bar and nearly vomited on the field. He shied from the spotlight then, racing off to orally unload the candy on the sidelines, then return to the game.
"I didn't want to throw up on the field," he explains. "Naw, not on national TV."
The coaching staff seems more willing to accept that personal stamp as long as it continues to emerge far less often than Dingle's playmaking ability. Dingle leads No. 3 West Virginia (9-1, 4-1 Big East) in sacks and tackles for loss with eight and 15.5 for 68 yards, respectively. No other player has more than 11.
He is really the lone playmaker along the Mountaineer front when nose guard Keilen Dykes is tucked inside, away from his tackle position. Dykes, a four-year starter and all-Big East selection, is the de facto leader of the line, and Batman to Dingle's Robin, according to the duo. But even as the caped crusader, Dykes can't make the plays Dingle can because of numerous double teams. Dingle is usually challenged by a slower afoot offensive tackle, or a running back that can't handle his brute strength in the pass rush. Both will be depended upon heavily against No. 20 Connecticut (9-2, 5-1) with the Big East's BCS berth on the line.
"Now he is getting in the ear a lot more of the offensive line," tackle Scooter Berry – who Dingle is terming Alfred, after the butler – said of Dingle's emergence over the latter four games. "It is bothering them, and as it does he gets better throughout the game. That works. He can go all game. It's funny some of the things he says."
None of which any other player will repeat. Against Connecticut, Dingle will match-up with an offense that is averaging 28 points per game. UConn is even more balanced than it has been in recent seasons, and the addition of junior college transfer quarterback Tyler Lorenzen seems to have sparked a once-lethargic offense. At 6-5, Lorenzen is one of the larger targets the Mountaineer front will face all season. He is also slower than either Mauk or South Florida's Matt Grothe, both of whom made plays against WVU when they left the pocket. Dingle says he'll tell Lorenzen all about himself throughout the game. As long as the plays are made, Kirelawich, glad he is in the press box so he doesn't have to listen, will deal with it.
"It's not consistently," Kirelawich said of Dingle's mental lapses. "If it was consistently, I wouldn't be talking to you now. We'd be talking about some other guy. If it was consistent he'd be in trouble. It's rare now, but when he does it, he hears about it. I think Dykes is a positive influence on him. Dykes is the kind of guy that has always been a hard worker, and he has really emerged as a leader. To say he is a real positive force with the entire defense is a real understatement."
Dingle, who can return for another collegiate season if he chooses after graduating, has just two games left this season. He won't evaluate anything until then.
"We have worked hard and stayed focused," Dingle said. "That's what we have worked on. That's all we have been doing. We are having fun, but you have to pay the price during the offseason. You have to work hard. This year we got (Eric) Wicks paying big, (Ryan) Mundy came in this year. Mortty Ivy, Marc Magro, Antonio Lewis, Scooter coming along. Me and my counterpart, Batman and Robin, we're doing what we do and leading by example. I ain't satisfied yet. December 1st, I will be satisfied after that. Not until then."