Way back in 1985, a different-looking player showed up at WVU's football facility. He looked more like a basketball star than a football player – in fact, he was spotted in his home on the Virgin Islands by a West Virginia basketball assistant coach. At a time when the West Virginia program was battling for national recognition, the coaching staff was prepared to take chances on a different sort of player, and that's exactly what led Renaldo Turnbull to the Mountaineer football program.
Turnbull didn't look anything like the typical defensive lineman of the era. He wasn't stocky, and didn't have a big body. Instead, he was a lithe six- foot, five-inch, 230-pound athlete with a great burst of speed and incredibly long arms. After some debate about where he might best fit on the football field, the coaching staff first put him at tight end. When that didn't work out, they moved him to defensive end.
The results weren't immediate. Turnbull had but one tackle in limited action during his first year on the field, and after two years he had just 14 career stops and two sacks to his credit. However, the potential that he possessed was clear to his position coach, Bill Kirelawich, and the crusty mentor stuck with his young protégé. That faith was rewarded during his junior season, when Turnbull racked up 73 tackles and 12 sacks. Included in that total were 57 solo stops – testament to his ability to make plays and get to the ball more quickly than just about any defensive end in the country.
At the time, Turnbull didn't think much about his groundbreaking status. He was too busy learning the nuances of the game. However, some with a longer view did notice it, and just prior to the 1990 NFL draft they zeroed in on the Mountaineer star.
"That year, TV did a special and they called it the 'prototype athlete of the future'," Turnbull related. "It wasn't just about me, but they used me as an example and said, ‘this is what you are going to see more of in the future.' It's been kind of interesting to see that whole progression. It's not just defensive ends, but you are seeing that on both sides of the ball. I remember when [offensive lineman] John Ray came in here. This kid was 320, 330 pounds, and now you can't play offensive line unless you are 300-plus. And they are not just big guys, they are big guys that can move. The game has changed, and it's been interesting to see."
The progression in the sheer size of the players has been something of a steady upward curve, but the move to taller players with length has been a recent one. Many of those players were more suited to basketball with their builds, which put them at a disadvantage when going up with against heavier foes. Turnbull, though, was able to develop the skills to overcome that disadvantage.
"I've always been on the light side. For me, I was always going up against guys who were going to outweigh me by 50-60 pounds, so you have to have good technique, especially with your hands That's one of the things I always worked on with Coach Kirelawich. He would harp on us about our hands, so we became proficient at it. I never went into a match-up with a tackle where I had a weight advantage, but I felt like I had a technique advantage. I had long arms, and I was able to get mine inside first, and usually win the battle."
West Virginia has just that sort of player dotted across its defense. In addition to the players along the offensive and defensive lines, there's guys like Robert Sands (6-5) Jewone Snow (6-3) and Mike Dorsey (6-3), ranging in the linebacking and secondary corps. But it's up front where the most recent trend has really gained traction. Three years ago, Julian Miller (6-4) came in as an undersized defensive end. Will Clarke (6-6) and Curtis Feigt (6-6) joined the team in 2009, and Trevor Demko (6-6) came to WVU this fall.. None were north of 250 pounds, but all had the height and wingspan to allow them to employ those same techniques that Turnbull describes. Some, such as Feigt, are gaining weight and figure to be inside players, while others, like Clarke, will probably mirror Turnbull's progression. They all, however, share that common beginning, and all are learning the same lessons that Turnbull did.
"I was talking to Kirlav, and basically it hasn't changed," Turnbull related. "He still works with technique more than anything. He was talking that he has a few young guys similar to me, and that's what you are going to see. I look at my son, he's a freshman, and he's 6-4 and he's playing defensive end. You look at guys like Julius Peppers, that's the future."
And also, when looking at Turnbull, a blast from the past.