Last season, the Mountaineers installed a unique, "33 Stack" defense, employing five defensive backs. Though it may seem counterintuitive, West Virginia was very strong against the run in 2002 and adequate against opponents' passing attacks.
The 33 alignment, uses two of its three safeties as "rover" types, designated as the spur and bandit positions. These safeties play a tweaner role somewhere between outside linebacker and a conventional strong safety or nickleback. The result is a unit that can flex between a nickel-style five DB package, and a "35" eight-in-the-box look with the same personnel.
Last season against Wisconsin, the spur and bandit positions played almost entirely in the box in an effort to shut down the run. The Badgers countered with an aerial assault; UW completed 14-of-18 passes for 248 yards in the first half en route to a 34-17 victory.
It would be an understatement to say West Virginia's defense will again be in flux this season. The Mountaineers graduated seven starters and had few reserves that reaped significant experience in 2002. Furthermore, two of West Virginia's returning starters appear to be changing positions. In an effort to improve on an anemic pass rush, the Mountaineers are installing a greater variety of blitz packages.
Key Stats: NCAA rank in parentheses
Scoring defense: 23.2 points per game (40)
Rushing: 121.8 yards per game (30)
Yards per carry: 3.5
Passing: 213.6 ypg (55)
Yards per pass: 6.7
Total defense: 335.5 (33)
Yards per play: 5.0
Turnovers forced: 34—19 interceptions, 15 fumbles recovered
Sacks: 16 for 97 yards
Defensive Line Analysis:
Despite the severe lack of a pass rush, the Mountaineers front three, led by end David Upchurch (14.5 tackles for loss) were a tremendous strength on a team that was good against the run in 2002. But all three starters are gone and their replacements lack experience and size. The likely starters at defensive end are senior Fred Blueford and junior Ben Lynch. Sophomore Ernest Hunter, who broke his leg five games into last season, will likely anchor the line at defensive tackle. Blueford, who had four sacks and 15 tackles last season, will likely have the greatest impact in 2003. A group of redshirt freshman provide the first wave of reserves.
All-Big East outside linebacker Grant Wiley will be a fourth-year starter. Wiley (133 tackles, 13.5 TFL, three sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles in 2002) is one of the nation's elite linebackers and certainly the star of the Mountaineers defense. He will be joined by two new starters, likely senior Leandre Washington on the outside and junior Adam Lehnortt, who recorded 63 tackles last season, is one of the few new starters with exceptional game experience. Sophomore Alex Lake and junior Scott Gyorko should see playing time on what is West Virginia's best defensive unit.
This unit returns three out of five starters, but only one is likely keeping his position. Lance Frazier, a three-year starter, returns at cornerback. Fellow senior Brian King, who started the last two seasons at corner, will likely slide to free safety, allowing junior Jahmile Addae to move from free to the strong safety or "spur" position. The 5-11, 207-pound Addae led the Mountaineers with 16 pass breakups and four interceptions in 2002.
Sophomore Adam Jones is slated to take over for King at one cornerback spot. Classmate Anthony Mims will also see time at corner. Junior Lawrence Audena is projected as the next "bandit". Sophomore Mike Lorello will be the primary backup at the bandit position for the second straight year, while redshirt freshman Akeem Jackson and senior James Woodruff will also be in the mix for playing time.
West Virginia's defense will likely be a mirror image of its former self this season. With plenty of speed but a lack of size and experience, particularly on the defensive line, the unit will likely struggle at times to stop the run. However, there is sufficient talent, and the right scheme, for the defense to quickly adapt to the new players and become adequate in that aspect. With experience in the secondary, the Mountaineers should be improved against the pass, but will the team muster a pass rush? Wiley should blossom further and become a potential all-American this season. The linebacking corps could be special in general.
West Virginia Week: Defensive Preview
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