Big Boost

The news that senior defensive lineman Patrick Liebig has been awarded a sixth year of eligibility is a big boost for West Virginia's defensive line. However, there is one question that unit must answer in order to make WVU's defense one of the tops in the country.

Liebig's approval makes WVU stronger on the defensive front in several aspects. First, it makes the Mountaineers very strong up the middle. Chris Nield has been on a steady upward arc of improvement since last year's 48-28 Fiesta Bowl win, and projects to be a solid performer in 2008. Add Liebig to the mix, and it becomes a position of strength.

That's not the only place the Florida native could help, however. He is familiar with all three defensive line positions, and even though he was out last year and missed some of the adjustments made in 2007, it won't take him long to get back in the groove mentally. Depending on West Virginia's needs up front, he could see time at tackle, along with Scooter Berry and Doug Slavonic, or at end with Zac Cooper and Larry Ford.

Injuries or the opponent being faced that week could determine some of those playing opportunities, so it's something of a crapshoot in predicting where and how often Liebig plays at any one spot. However, one thing is sure -- he'll be on the field for a lot of snaps, and he gives defensive line coach Bill Kirelavich some flexibility in working out his defensive line rotation. It also allows newcomers such as Uriah Grant and D.J. Shaw to be brought along a bit more slowly, and although either could play this year, there won't be the pressing need to get them ready for game one against Villanova.

There's still one area, however, where the newly-bolstered line will have to show its mettle -- rushing the passer. This was a problem area up until last year, when defensive end Johnny Dingle, combined with support from blitzers in Jeff Casteel's ever-evolving scheme, combined for 40 sacks.

Dingle's nine QB takedowns led the team, a year ago, but he and those sacks are gone to the NFL, along with Keilen Dykes, who added three. The top returning defensive linemen in terms of sacks are Berry and Neild, who each had 1/2 sack last year (Zac Cooper's 2.5 came from the linebacker postion). So, the big question is, will the defensive line be able to maintain the pressure it generated on QBs a year ago?

There are some good signs pointing to a positive answer to that question. Berry and Neild will obviously get more playing time this year, so their totals would be expected to rise. If each could match Dykes' total, then WVU will likely have no problem with its interior rush. On the edge, it's unfair to expect that Cooper will be able to match Dingle's totals, but if he could get to the six or seven mark, WVU should be in fine shape.

It's also important to remember that sacks from the defensive line aren't expected all the time. In the three-man front, it's difficult for a lineman to defeat what amounts to almost constant double-teaming and get to the QB. If the linemen can tie up their offensive foes, however, that can free lanes for blitzing linebackers such as Mortty Ivy (six sacks a year ago) to give them a clear shot at the quarterback. On the other hand, one of the skills that separates a very good defensive lineman from a great one is the ability to make plays against odds -- to occasionally defeat two blockers and make a tackle in the backfield. If West Virginia gets that from its trench corps, it will be sitting pretty.

What is important for the line, if it can't get to the QB, is to generate pressure that collapses the pocket and either a) forces drop back passers to move around, or b) collapse the pocket on scramblers to keep them from breaking into the open field. That's a tough challenge, and one that isn't always going to be met. But if the newly-liberated Liebig, along with his teammates, can achieve those goals, West Virginia will once again be in the top twenty defensively in the country.

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