Is any team in the country losing more talent and experience from their defensive line than West Virginia? Stalwarts David Upchurch, Tim Love and Jason Davis all graduate. A fourth part time starter, Kevin Freeman, left prior to the end of the season.
Returning are defensive end Fred Blueford, who had a solid, if unspectacular season, Ernest Hunter, who was progressing nicely until a broken leg interrupted his rookie campaign, and Ben Lynch, who provided valuable backup time. That's a nice core to begin building around, but will any of these players be able to match the performances of Love and Upchurch?
There's a large crop of redshirt freshman who will compete to provide depth, led by Louisiana's Craig Wilson, who showed a combination of tenacity and skills that had the coaches considering whether to play him in 2002. However, translating that to the playing field is a big step, and WVU will need at least three more defensive linemen to fill out their rotation with Blueford, Hunter and Lynch. Other candidates include players such as Jeremy Sheffey, Ben Clemmons, Warren Young and Rachid Stoury.
The X factor is talented but troubled lineman Kelvin Dubouse, who battled grade and other disciplinary issues in 2002. Dubouse served two suspensions over the past season, and his status for 2003 is unclear. If he returns, it's a big boost. If he does not, WVU is going to have one of the youngest defensive lines in the country.
The story is similar at linebacker, although the Mountaineers do have a star to build around in the form of Grant Wiley, who will be back for his senior season. Lost are starters James Davis and Ben Collins, both of whom ended up being key figures in WVU's revamped defense.
Although talented players who saw a good deal of action such as Adam Lehnortt, Leandre Washington, Scott Gyorko and Mo Howard return, there figures to be some shuffling to fill out the linebacking corps. Middle linebacker may be the key concern with this group, as well as pursuit speed, but there is some returning experience that should help this corps rebuild.
The field for replacments is wide open at this point. Players like Mike Lorello, Mike Henshaw and Lawrence Audena saw very limited time at these positions this year, and they will be challenged by a large group of redshirt freshmen, and perhaps even true freshmen. These positions are also likely candidates for position switches, as a player like free safety Jahmile Addae could be moved down to take advantage of his tackling and hitting ability.
Finally, we come to a position where both starters return. Lance Frazier and Brian King give WVU a pair of steady performers who are often underrated. Frazier has a bit of an advantage in terms of cover skills, but King has the edge as a tackler and hitter. Together, they give WVU some security at the corners, but backups need to be found to give them a break at times.
Anthony Mims has shown the ability to be one of those players, but a long string of injuries has kept him from being a consistent contributor. Adam Jones will be a primary candidate for backup time, as he saw time at more than one position in the secondary last year. Kahli Gamble and Thandi Smith saw most of their action on special teams, so the competition to provide a third and fourth corner figures to be open between they and another large group of freshmen, both of the redshirt and incoming variety.
At free safety, Addae returns, but the aformentioned possibility of a position switch for him might open that spot up as well. Audena, Lorello or another member of WVU's large group of underclassmen could challenge for time.
The veterans that return on the defensive unit next year are good, but the problem is that there just aren't enough of them. WVU loses four of their top six tacklers from a year ago. Of the 21 players that made more than toke appearances on defense last year, only 11 are eligible to return. That's a lot of stopping power to replace.
WVU will also have to work a new defensive coach into the mix, which adds another level of uncertainty to that side of the ball. All in all, there's a major rebuilding task to be done, one that's even bigger than the offense faces.
We'll conclude our look at the prospects for next season with a look at special teams and some final thoughts.