At nose tackle, sophomore Chris Neild has come in and played like a seasoned veteran, filling what was a question mark along the Mountaineer defensive front. In light of the absence of Pat Liebig, who has missed the last two games after sustaining multiple hits to the head, Neild's play has been crucial to WVU's defensive success.
After playing behind Keilen Dykes at the nose tackle during his freshman season, Neild has seen significant playing time as a starter this season. Head coach Bill Stewart and defensive line Coach Bill Kirelawich made many changes during the first few games to find a winning combination on the field, and as they have settled on Liebig, Scooter Berry and Doug Slavonic, the up front unit has stabilized.
"I think the reason (the starters are playing more) is that we're really starting to click," Neild said. "After the fifth game of the season, we are starting to mold and gel together. I think that's what the coaches have been waiting for all season and I think we're finally starting to do that."
Other than long yardage substitutions, when Zac Cooper, Larry Ford and Julian Miller see time, the starting front three were on the field for much longer stints against Rutgers. That trend figures to continue against Syracuse this week, as the starting trio has performed well, especially against the run. Stopping the rush is always Priority One in WVU's defensive scheme, and when that goes to plan, the Mountaineers usually come out with a win.
While the front line has weathered the absence of Liebig, the departure of a player one level back could have an even greater effect on the defensive line.
"There is a dramatic different when (Reed Williams) is out there," Neild admitted. "It's a different field when he's out there with us. The defense feels a little more solidified as a whole. That's not to bash Anthony Leonard, because he's doing a fine job in there right now. But with (Williams) being a veteran and knowing the little things better than the back up linebackers, you feel a little more secure."
The line and linebackers passed their first test in that regard against Rutgers, however. Neild had six tackles in the Mountaineer victory, and helped hold the Scarlet Knights to just 72 yards on the ground. For a player at the nose, who is constantly doubleteamed and the first target for blockers on inside rushing attempts, six tackles is akin to a three-sack day for a passrushing defensive end. Still, Neild chose to focus on the entire defensive effort.
"What helped was getting them in third and long situations. When we go into third and long, we put a different defensive package in there which gets me off the field and gives me a chance to catch my breath," Neild said. "I think that was one of the reasons -- us stopping the run and forcing them into third and long." The defense will continue to improve and refine its play when the Mountaineers take on Syracuse this Saturday. Neild indicated that although Syracuse will have a different blocking scheme, West Virginia doesn't adjust a great deal to those sorts of changes. Instead, the defensive front concentrates on being fundamentally sound while running its own schemes and tactics in order to disrupt the opposing scheme.
The square-off against the Orange has a bit more significance for Neild, who was recruited and offered a scholarship by Syracuse before taking a grant-in-aid from West Virginia. Neild chose Morgantown over Syracuse because he felt more comfortable in the hills of West Virginia. And while he'd like nothing better than to record another standout game against the Orange, Neild first has his focus on team improvement.
"I don't think any of us are happy, to be honest with you. With having two losses, I don't think anyone is happy. But as the season progresses, I'm not that worried about it. I think we're getting there."