Consider that with the loss of all five players in the secondary and defensive linemen Keilen Dykes and Johnny Dingle, only WVU's linebackers have any semblance to last year's team. So it was there that Casteel, both the defensive coordinator and position coach, began his focus when attempting to build the 2008 series of the odd stack. Little wonder, as it will be the linebackers who are expected to provide leadership and playmaking ability as Casteel as the staff experiment with four-man fronts and other looks to maximize options and talent.
"We got a lot of depth," said Pat Lazear, who made four tackles in the Gold-Blue spring game, two in the opening series. "At every position we have two or three guys who can blow it out. What's good with our chemistry is when we slip up, guys are both there to take the spot and pick us up. The team chemistry is doing well, and the linebackers are really close."
The unit, certainly more than any other since 2000, has a blend of smarts, ability and the tangibles needed to excel. The overall speed and quickness is the best in a decade, and the feel for flow to the ball and football intelligence – the aptitude for reading a play and quickly, and correctly, reacting – is there. The intangibles appear to be as well, though those will be in constant flux and are arguably more important at times.
"We are trying to be the best in the country," said senior Mortty Ivy, who has already been pegged by head coach Bill Stewart as the probable defensive leader heading into summer workouts. "But we are not worried about rankings, we are just worried about going out and working and trying to be the best we can be."
Stewart has lauded the play of both Ivy and J.T. Thomas, noting that Ivy controlled much of the Oklahoma drills with several big hits. The physical, tackle-based sessions are geared toward defenders getting off blocks while the offense attempts to seal a running lane, and Ivy ripped through several attempted blocks to nail ball carriers.
"I got out of the way," Stewart said. "He was shocking them. Bang! Mortty Ivy has had the spring of all springs. Again, he and J.T. Thomas, they are like heat-seeking missiles."
Ivy is playing the best football of his career, Thomas is showcasing the athleticism and instincts expected and Pat Lazear and Anthony Leonard continue to develop at a high level. Add in Reed Williams, who didn't even practice in the spring because of shoulder surgery, and that's a solid five. With junior college transfer Archie Sims and newcomer Najae Goode (redshirt freshman, Cleveland), Casteel as the skilled two-deep he has desired.
"I think they guys have accepted what we are trying to do and responded well," Casteel said. "There have been a few changes, but you will have that every year. I think our staff has done whatever we thought we could to make out football team better. That is always your goal, and players at each position have to be responsible for that."
The plus is that all transitions should be relatively smooth for the unit. In a 4-3 or 3-3, the linebacker play is the one that least changes. While the line must adjust to new fit ups and playing different techniques over the offensive front and the secondary sets change immensely, the linebackers still essentially operate in a similar manner. They might not blitz as much in the 4-3, and they might have different angles or to navigate through more bodies to swarm to a running play, but not much else changes. It's still essentially a read, react and strike position.
Perhaps the biggest issue coming into fall is finding a line that can keep opposing players off the threesome and free to attack. A squad with top shelf linebackers can't maximize talent if opposing lines keep knocking teammates into them. Casteel is aware that he can't unleash his full allotment of blitzes or run play if Scooter Berry doesn't have help up front. With the odd stack or 4-3 look, the line must keep players off of the ‘backers for them to shoot gaps and seams and make tackles and to free them to flow to the ball. If WVU can get the bodies it needs there – and an influx is coming with JUCO stud Tevita Finau and five other signees – the linebackers can be used to a full degree. That's a major step, even with the slight modifications being made.
"I think they will be all right," Williams said. "Scooter was a standout last year and we have some good guys that should help and allow us to make plays. You have (ends) Larry Ford and Julian Miller, a couple guys who can make plays when they gain some weight. Then Zac Cooper, he's our speed off the edge right now. So we can go and make the plays behind them.
"Personally, I hate being on the sideline and watching people play," Williams said. "But it is good for some (other players). I can see the linebackers grow daily. From the start of spring until now they have grown in ways I did not think they could, or would. They have made progress and it is good to see where they are going and where they are headed."
That's into offseason conditioning right now, when the experienced position will be expected to lead the defense through the rigors and strains of summer – a time when a team often constructs its chemistry and personality for the year.
"I am not comfortable saying we are one of the best to come through here," Thomas said. "There have been some pretty good players. But I think we have a chance to be pretty good with some work. With a great summer and fall camp we can be pretty good."