Anchor Away

West Virginia's defensive line needs Scooter Berry's knee to have a face.

That largely unknown, and perhaps underrated, front has only Berry as a recognizable force. And even then, the New York native is only a sophomore with one year of starting experience. But the graduation of veteran Keilen Dykes and Johnny Dingle's decision to declare for the NFL draft has left Berry as the elder statesmen just two years into his collegiate career. When he misses time, as he did during offseason conditioning while recovering from a knee injury, the defensive line becomes a collection of unknowns, not just in name, but in playing ability.

"Scooter Berry has to be one of our vocal guys," head coach Bill Stewart said. "Guys who make plays can talk. Guys who haven't been out in the arena tread softly a little bit. He was a freshman All-American. The nose guard, Chris Neild, isn't going to say boo. Larry Ford is trying to get lined up. Zac Cooper was just moved there. So Scooter Berry needs to be vocal. I don't give a crap if he is a sophomore. He has been around and earned the right. He puts it up. If you are going to talk it up, you better put it up."

Neild and Cooper, listed as the starters at nose and defensive end at the start of spring, combined for 19 tackles last year, with Cooper playing linebacker. Ford played in a 4-3 defense at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College last year. Redshirt freshman Julian Miller is still making mental errors on a routine basis while learning both the position and the system. That leaves Berry, who made 27 tackles, 12th most on the team, with 4.5 for loss and three fumble recoveries. Without him to anchor, the line lacks every fashion of leadership.

That will be tested, and should hold up as long as Berry's left knee does. The joint was examined two months ago showed a strength and flexibility differential of 20 percent when compared to his fully healthy right knee. Trainers would not clear him to play until that was lessened to 10 percent, a mark reached two weeks ago. Both joints, however, are weaker than Berry and the strength staff would like. Part of the problem is Berry's build. The 6-1, 285-pounder carries the vast majority of his weight through the trunk, arms and shoulders. His legs are thin in relation, and will need to gain muscle throughout summer workouts if Berry hopes to take the pounding he needs to during the upcoming season.

"I gotta get those stronger to hold all this weight," he said. "At the beginning of last year I was 270, 275. By the bowl game, I was 285. My legs are not comfortable right now. But it feels good and is getting better, so I think all the weight is helping me out on the line. Coach (Bill) Kirelawich is satisfied with the weight."

Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel expects Berry to take the majority of snaps at tackle this season, allowing the other players to jell around him. Ford has great upside, and he and Miller could combine to match Dingle's production last year. Neild lacks Dykes' experience and technique, but has the body to control the middle. And Cooper is a wild card who is in the very early stages under Kirelawich and hasn't had major time to progress this spring. Until they gain comfort and understanding at their slots, the staff is aware that they cannot begin to lead, or even assist other linemen, let alone the entire defense.

"Last year I was an introvert," Berry said. "This year I gotta be real vocal. Not too vocal, but I will say stuff when I have to. I want to lead by example. Last year I thought about playing a lot, and that slowed me down. I don't want that to happen to the younger guys. I want them full speed."

That hasn't yet come to fruition. But the line has held its own even as both sides of the ball dominate at times. The offensive line controlled the pass rush on Monday, bettering a defense that had largely contained the inside running game in earlier drills. The back and forth battles have bettered both fronts, and helped new players become closer as the units begin to form heading into what is expected to be a very important summer.

"I think we are starting to jell a lot, and not just on the field, but of the field as well," Berry said. "That plays a major role. We are hanging out, and in a game that all carries onto the field. We are communicating. I feel like we have a lot of dudes that are going to make a lot of sacrifices. I think we have a lot of guys who feel they should have been playing last year that weren't. They have something to prove this year and they are going to get after it. It's going to be a real good defense."

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