Attacking the Opposition

With the majority of key players returning from a highly successful unit a season ago, the Mountaineer defense may opt to become more aggressive in attacking opposing quarterbacks in 2009, according to one of the team's linebackers.

"We're trying to work on being better pass rushers," said J.T. Thomas. "Coach (defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jeff Casteel) talks about that all the time -- us being able to get to the quarterback."

"We're working on a lot of pass rush drills where we use speed, finesse and sometimes power -- different things, coming up with different moves and combinations."

One of the ways the West Virginia defenders are doing so is by watching film of a highly successful professional team just a short drive north of Morgantown.

"One of the best pass rushers in the NFL is (Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker) James Harrison," Thomas said. "We watch him a lot and watch the other linebackers and how they fly to the ball."

"The safeties will watch (Steelers safety) Troy Polamalu because he's one of the best in the league. The whole Steelers defense gives you motivation, something to strive for."

The Super Bowl champion Steelers have long been known for their ability to attack opposing offenses. With the WVU defense attempting to mimic some of that "Blitzburgh-esque" play this offseason, quarterback Jarrett Brown has dealt with defenders in his face throughout 7-on-7 drills.

"We always get on JB about him taking the check-downs," Thomas said, grinning. "It's real competitive out there and we don't want to give him anything and he wants to score against us. It gets both of us better."

While Casteel may be adopting a somewhat more aggressive style this season, Thomas said the defense's bread and butter will remain the same as it has been in years past.

"I think our philosophy will always be to stop the run first," the junior said. "But when it's time to get after the quarterback, we want to be able to do that efficiently."

"I feel like the game will be a lot slower this year. We'll be able to play faster. With us training together in the offseason, we've developed better chemistry. We'll be better on the field together."

The West Virginia defense comes into the season with high expectations after a successful 2008 season. With the return of linebacker Reed Williams to "quarterback" the unit, some have suggested that the 2009 edition of the defense could be even better.

That process begins in the offseason, and Thomas said he and his teammates have been taking advantage of the opportunity to grow into stronger, better conditioned and more knowledgeable football players this summer.

"Everything is going great," said the Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., native. "Everybody's getting ready for the season, man. It seems so close but yet so far. People have been doing great in the 7-on-7s and the workouts are going fine."

"I believe everybody knows how good we can be. With a little focus and determination, there's no limit to what we can become this season."

Personally, Thomas has added a bit of weight. The multidisciplinary studies major said he now weighs between 227 and 228 pounds and hopes to play at 230 this season. However, strength isn't the only thing the redshirt junior has added to his game this summer.

"I'm getting a lot more flexible, a lot more explosive," Thomas said. "(Strength and conditioning coach) Mike (Joseph) has us on a great program. We're winding down now, trying to get our bodies ready for camp. I'm pretty sure it will show on the field this year."

And while 230 pounds still leaves Thomas around 12 pounds lighter than the Steelers' Harrison, he hopes to be able to have similar success when the season rolls around by employing some of the star linebacker's moves.

"One thing I notice is (Harrison) mixes up his moves a lot," Thomas said. "He keeps the tackle guessing. The tackle never knows whether James Harrison is going to make a move and get around him or just run right through him."

"If I can threaten (tackles) enough with my speed and get them on their heels, it won't be hard to push them right over."

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