With Doug Slavonic (6-8), Julian Miller (6-5) and Larry Ford (6-4), the Mountaineer defensive line is dotted with players of heights more commonly seen on a basketball court than a football field. Those long frames should certainly help against opposing passing games, as West Virginia should be able to get hands up and disrupt passing lanes. A pass that is batted or deflected at the line is every bit as valuable as one that is knocked down or defended by a cornerback or safety, and WVU will been looking to improve on the total of seven deflections recorded by its defensive front a year ago.
Even if a pass isn't knocked askew, simply getting hands up can also bring benefits. Receivers running short routes can often have their view of the quarterback blocked by defensive linemen, and resulting throws "out of the well" can also wind up as incompletions. So, from that perspective, the 2008 version of the Mountaineers looks to have a nice base to build from.
Standing tall on the defensive front has its drawbacks, however. Chief among those is the difficulty it presents in staying low and gaining leverage. Improving on those skills is something that every Mountaineer in the defensive trenches drills on daily, and perhaps no one is receiving more of a crash course in that area than junior college transfer Larry Ford.
Recruited out of Coffeyville Community College to provide immediate help for WVU's pass rush, Ford faces all of the challenges that junior college players typically see in their first weeks in the program. Job one on his list of improvement goals is keeping low – something that's tough for anyone with a rangy frame.
"When you are coming off the end, the first reaction is to stand up," Ford admitted. "When you are pass rushing, the first reaction is to just beat the guy in front of you. So that first step, you want to stand up. Coach Kirelawich wants that first step to shoot out, not up. It is hard for us taller guys to do that, because when we shoot out, it seems like we are leaning forward and falling over ourselves. We have to learn how to do that and stay low."
Balance, of course, is another challenge for taller players, who have a higher center of gravity than their more compactly built teammates, and it's something else that Kirelawich is cognizant of. A variety of drills, including firing out through tunnels of pads, are designed to build the flexibility and strength necessary to keep tall players closer to the ground, but also balanced enough to react, shed blocks and make tackles.
The reason for all this work is a simple one. Stand up, and a massive target area is exposed for offensive linemen to exploit. Players that do so are likely to get punched in the chest and moved aside by offensive linemen. In the trenches, leverage and technique, as much as brute strength, determine the winners and losers, so players that can't stay low and win those battles aren't likely to have much success.
Ford realizes that consistency in these areas is a key for him this spring.
"Coach Kirlav said I have good hands, but pad level and shooting out my hips are the things I have to work on the most," he said. "He teaches a lot of different techniques [to help with that]. Using your hands more, staying low, staying flexible in your knees, those are all things I have to work on. I have a tall frame, so staying low and shooting out my hips is what I'm concentrating on."
Those aren't the only things Ford has to learn in his first spring at WVU. While junior college players are recruited to fill immediate needs, many don't make the leap easily. The distance from juco star to a contributing role or starting assignment on a Football Bowl Subdivision team is much greater than many believe.
"A lot has taken me by surprise," said Ford, whose easy laugh and quick wit make him an excellent interview. "This is my first year playing in a three-down-lineman [system], and I've been used to the 4-3 defense. And the offensive line is good. I'm not playing against those 250-pound offensive linemen I played against at my juco. These boys are a lot bigger. I have to get used to playing against them."
While Ford is learning plays and getting used to the different scheme, his individual assignments haven't changed a great deal from his season at Coffeyville. That's because he is playing outside the tackle as a defensive end in WVU's 3-3 alignment, and thus still gets mostly one-on-one assignment.
"Reading the down block, reading pulls, reading reaches, it's basically the same for me," Ford noted. "I didn't stunt as much in juco as I do this year, so that's another thing I have to do better."
Add it all up, and there's a laundry list of items for Ford – just as there are for any juco transfer. Add in the goal of gaining weight (he's at 230 pounds right now, with a goal of 240-245 by the fall) and learning the play calls and system, and his plate is as full as a chemistry major carrying 21 hours of coursework. He's confident, however, that he can improve to the point where he can be a contributor in 2008. But in order to stand out, he has to stay low.