Building Blocks

West Virginia had the top red zone defense in the nation last year, allowing just 18 touchdowns and nine field goals on 42 opposing drives inside its 20-yard line. While that stat did demonstrate the resilience of the Mountaineer defense, it also pointed out a couple of problems on that side of the ball. Is that something that WVU can count on again in 2009?

While the easy answer would appear to be yes, the subject requires some deeper examination. Keeping foes out of the end zone when they are attacking from point blank range is certainly desirable, but the preference of any defensive coach would be to keep foes out of scoring range in the first place. WVU's 2008 unit struggled to get stops on third down and yielded a number of drives that weren't squelched until they were within sniffing distance of the Mountaineer goal line. Getting stops earlier in drive, and getting off the field on the first or second opportunity, rather than the last, are some of the key goals for West Virginia during 2009.

Of course, it wouldn't be bad to have a defense that snuffs drives early, but also has the ability to make stops in close. However, no defense can be built on solely the latter ability, as defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel is quick to point out.

"It's just a stat that I bet we haven't discussed other than when the media has brought it up," Casteel said with a laugh when asked if red zone stops can be a linchpin. "We have to get better at what we do. I think for the most part the kids did a nice job as the year went on last year. We have to continue to build on that. There are a lot of things we have to get better at. There were some things that we just weren't as good at last year as we were the year before, and whether that's experience or having the reps, we have to emphasize the little things and teach, teach, teach."

"We want to teach the base defense and let the kids play [this spring]. That's the only way we can evaluate them. Then they can get confident and go play fast. That's the biggest thing we want to accomplish this spring. We want them to have a better understanding of what we are trying to do."

A year ago, that preparation was a difficult task. Replacing eight starters, Casteel and his staff were at square one in trying to get the defense ready for the season. This year, while there will still be a lot of teaching to be done, there are enough veterans, or at least players with experience, returning to help start out somewhere past square one. Reed Williams, along with players such as Scooter Berry, Chris Neild, Julian Miller, Zac Cooper, Pat Lazear, Anthony Leonard, J. T. Thomas, Brandon Hogan, Sidney Glover, Nate Sowers, Robert Sands, Eain Smith, Boogie Allen, Keith Tandy and Kent Richardson, provide a nice building base for Casteel, but he also knows that it won't be and easy task. Starters – productive starters – at several key positions must be replaced, and getting all of those players into the correct position is the challenge that looms.

"Right after the bowl game, I was asked about [building for this year]," Casteel noted. "There are a lot of things that happen between the coming off the field in North Carolina and going out to play that first game in September. We have to make sure we are getting the players in the right spots, and that's what we'll be trying to do over the next four weeks. We'll also try to figure out where they are best suited to play."

Some of that might involve a bit of position switching, but Casteel said there won't be any major experiments. The majority of "moves" are ones that some fans won't even notice – for example, the shuffling of players from one linebacker spot to another.

"Reed Williams will be the mike (middle) linebacker, and Anthony Leonard will back him up," Casteel said. "But pretty much anybody with an "LB" after his name will get a chance at the sam (strong side) spot. We going to take Zac Cooper and work him some at sam, but he'll also still be a pass rusher like he was against Oklahoma and last year. But there aren't any big position changes we are looking at."

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Casteel noted that Williams, who will be one of the anchors of this year's defense, has been coming along well. "He hasn't had any problems, and is doing well. He has been participating in everything, and is good to go for the spring."

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