Casteel the linebackers coach has plenty of reason to be optimistic about the 2008 regular season. His platoon is arguably the deepest pool of ‘backers that WVU has ever had at one time. It is not merely deep, nor is it merely talented. It is both. And with a great mix of young talent and experienced veterans, there is no question that the linebackers are the strength of West Virginia's defense.
It all starts with the Mike in the middle, but who starts is still unknown. Senior Reed Williams was a standout at the position last season, but a pair of offseason shoulder surgeries has sidelined him from being full-go so far during camp.
"Reed right now is only participating in the individual drills," Casteel said. "He takes a little bit of the run drills that we do ourselves, but we're not putting him at any risk. He's doing ok, and he's ahead of schedule so we'll just have to wait and see. Only time will tell, and we don't really have to make a decision with that for another two or three weeks."
Running with the first team in Williams's absence is sophomore Pat Lazear. Predominantly a special teams standout during his rookie season, Lazear's lone defensive snaps came as an outside linebacker. Midway through spring drills, though, Casteel decided to move the Bethesda, Md. native to the middle, where his combination of playmaking ability and football smarts make him a natural to takeover for Williams both in the interim and in the longterm.
According to Casteel, Lazear has picked up right where he left off in the spring.
"Pat played well, and we moved him the last weeks of spring practice," he said. "He has had a good camp, and we're pushing him, along with his teammates. We have some options, but we're looking to him to take the job. He isn't a finished product by any means, but he's making progress on the field every day."
Sophomore Anthony Leonard also plays in the middle, though he has the ability to move over to Sam (strongside) as well.
Speaking of Sam, senior Mortty Ivy had a breakout year in 2007 playing on the weakside, and there's no reason to believe that the former Gateway Gator will not continue that success in his final year in blue and gold, even with a subtle shift to the strongside.
"But wait", you might say. "Why would Ivy move to the strongside after having such a banner year at Will?"
Two letters explain the logic behind the switch: J.T…as in Thomas. By all accounts, the sophomore has all the tools to be the next great linebacker to take the field at Milan Puskar Stadium. So when you have a chance to get him on the field alongside Ivy, Williams and even Lazear, you take that chance.
"He's doing very well, and he scrimmaged very well the other day, and had another good practice today," Casteel said Monday. "He's getting better every day, and he is a great athlete. We're really happy about where he is at. He comes to work and he has an outstanding work ethic."
Of course to have the dominant defense that head coach Bill Stewart yearns for, positions other than linebacker will have to make an impact. With a young, largely untested secondary and a defensive line that must replace two starters, one way in which the defense can grow is by forcing turnovers early and often.
To see the impact that forcing turnovers can have on a defense, look no further than last season when West Virginia finished the season ranked among the nation's leaders in turnover margin.
"It's a game of turnovers and that's something that we stress with our guys," Casteel explained. "We try to get that in our mind and that is a game changer, and we're trying to get that into their minds at camp. We're going to get as many fast guys on the field as we can, and those who can tackle in space.
"That's the game," he continued. "It's a strike game at this level, it's not a collision game that you might see in a high school game when they just run into each other. At this level, you have to move your feet and be able to strike and those are the types of things we're trying to get across to our guys."
Everyone knows that West Virginia's linebackers can play. By the time the meat of the 2008 regular season schedule rolls around, it is the hope of Casteel, Stewart and the rest of the Mountaineer coaching staff that the entire defense will be ready to compete for another Big East championship…and possibly more.
"We're in a process, and we keep installing things every day," Casteel said. "That will slow down eventually, but we have a long way to go as a group."