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2007 West Virginia Preview - Defense
Posted Jun 29, 2007

Preview 2007 West Virginia Mountaineer Defense

West Virginia Mountaineers

Preview 2007 - Defense

- 2007 West Virginia Preview | 2007 WVU Offense Preview 
2007 WVU Depth Chart | 2006 CFN West Virginia Preview 

What you need to know: Lost in all the yards the Mountaineer offense gained in 2006 was all the yards the defense allowed.  West Virginia allowed 35 or more points three times last fall and was torched through the air repeatedly over the second half of the year.  Worse, this once relentless defense had trouble getting to the quarterback and looked a step slow.  Rich Rodriguez is banking on a few tweaks to the back eight and an influx of faster players as the solutions in the team’s 3-3-5 stack formation.  Led by playmaking senior safety Eric Wicks, the secondary has a glut of really talented athletes that need to gel into a cohesive unit.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Quinton Andrews, 80
Sacks: Eric Wicks, 7
Interceptions: Quinton Andrews, 5

Star of the defense: Senior S Eric Wicks
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior CB Antonio Lewis
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore S Quinton Andrews
Best pro prospect: Senior DT Keilen Dykes
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Dykes 2) Wicks 3) LB Reed Williams
Strength of the defense: Run defense
Weakness of the defense: Pass defense, sacks

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Tackle Keilen Dykes is back for his senior year after finally tapping into his vast potential in 2006.  An All-Big East performer last season, he has the quickness on a 6-5, 295-pound frame to command double teams and provide an inside pass rush.  Dykes needs to be the emotional and physical leader of a front that struggled to create pressure at times last fall. 

Senior Johnny Dingle is the Mountaineers’ most reliable pass rusher off the edge, picking up 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks a year ago.  A former Florida Gator, he has a good burst, but at 6-3 and 260 pounds, can be a liability in run defense. 

At the nose will be Thor Merrow, a 6-1 and 240-pound sophomore that’ll be giving away plenty of weight to opposing.  However, his explosion off the snap and relentless pursuit of the ball fits what the Mountaineer D is trying to do in 2007.   

Projected Top Reserves: By this time next year, James Ingram might replace Dykes as the headliner of the unit.  Just a sophomore, he’s got great size for an end and the long arms needed to bat down passes and navigate around tackles.  Ingram has the potential to be the disruptive force that the Mountaineer defense sorely needs. 

Marcus Broxie and Scooter Berry, a pair of freshmen that redshirted in 2006, are poised to make noise this fall as young and athletic speed rushers. 

Junior Doug Slavonic is a hulking 6-8 player who has beefed up to 260 pounds since arriving as a 235-pound freshman.  A high ankle sprain limited him to just seven games last year, but he’s healthy again and ready to contribute at either end or tackle.

Watch Out For… redshirt freshman Chris Neild.  Neild is an athlete that just happens to be masquerading as a 300-pound tackle.  He’s nimble and has great feet and unexpected balance for an interior lineman, making it hard to keep him out of the rotation this season.  Neild could have Merrow’s job at some point this season.
Strength: Size on the outside.  The starters average 280 pounds, yet give away little in the areas of quickness or athleticism.  West Virginia led the Big East in run defense in 2006 in part because the line is strong at the point of attack and rarely gets moved off the ball.
Weakness: Lack of a pure edge rusher.  Dingle and Ingram are serviceable for now, but neither strikes fear in opposing linemen, forcing West Virginia to bring pressure from other areas, perhaps more than coordinator Jeff Casteel would like.
Outlook: The pass defense was awful a year ago, but it wasn’t all the secondary’s fault.  The line rarely did its job, getting just nine sacks and often forcing the staff to vacate safety support in an effort to create pressure.  Dykes will be an anchor, especially in run defense, however, the ends haven’t improved enough to feel confident about the pass rush.
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters: As the Mountaineers move forward without a couple of old hands, Boo McLee and Jay Henry, the big news at linebacker is that former safety John Holmes is being switched here from safety.  The 6-3, 230-pound junior could blossom into a star in his new role, while addressing the unit’s glaring need for more speed.  Holmes had 48 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2006, numbers he might dwarf this fall. 

Another player changing zip codes is Reed Williams who’ll move inside from strongside, a much better fit for the junior.  He has the instincts and experience to build on last season’s 57 stops and five sacks. 

J.T. Thomas turned heads last summer before donning a redshirt throughout 2006.  With that year on the shelf behind him, he’s ready to man the weakside for West Virginia where he’ll show off his range, intensity and overnight grasp of the team’s 3-3-5 odd stack defense.  West Virginia’s goal of getting more athleticism on the field will be enhanced by Thomas’ presence.         

Projected Top Reserves: Senior Marc Magro is very strong and very experienced, but a lack of speed often leaves him exposed, something the defense is trying to avoid.  He’ll provide veteran depth and possibly slide down and play some defensive end. 

Bobby Hathaway has 13 career starts, but is better suited to being a backup and a contributor on special teams.  Not the unit’s best athlete, he’s a scrapper who’ll be an emotional leader, even when he’s on the sidelines. 

Junior Mortty Ivy was well on his way to becoming an integral part of the Mountaineer defense last year when a spring knee injury derailed his progress.  Healthy again, he possesses the size, acceleration and toughness to emerge in 2007 and push Thomas for playing time at weakside.         

Watch Out For…newcomer Archie Sims.  A two-year starter at Jones County (Miss.) Junior College, Sims is undersized at 6-0 and 200 pounds, yet has the range and sideline-to-sideline speed to get immediate playing time in the middle or on the weakside.
Strength: Depth.  Even after losing McLee and Henry to graduation, the Mountaineers have stockpiled a diverse group of gifted linebackers for the upcoming season.  When veterans, such as Magro and Hathaway are coming off the bench, it’s a sign that the overall pool of available talent has gotten much deeper.
Weakness: Starting experience.  Shifting Holmes and inserting Williams and Thomas into the starting lineup are the right moves, but the trio has exactly zero combined starts at linebacker.  The juggling act should pay long-term dividends, even if there are some scary moments early in the year.
Outlook: For good reason, there’s excitement surrounding West Virginia’s facelift at linebacker.  The Mountaineers are determined to get its best athletes on the field, which will be parlayed into more quarterback pressures and better pass coverage.  The moves are going to pay off for the defense, while igniting the careers of Holmes, Thomas and Ivy.
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters: The good news for the Mountaineer secondary is that all of the starters and most of the reserves return in 2007.  Of course, after the team had the Big East’s worst pass defense a year ago, that might be the bad news as well.  The unit expects to get a big boost from the return of senior Eric Wicks, who is switching to free safety after earning an additional year of eligibility.  A Thorpe Award candidate, he had three interceptions last year, but is especially effective filling the lanes in run defense and coming on the blitz.  Wicks is an intimidator coming off his best season, leading West Virginia in tackles for loss and sacks. 

The front-runner at bandit safety is Charles Pugh, a speedy, intense defender that can really bring the payload.  The tools are there for the junior to have a breakout season, but he needs to become more consistent and limit those moments that he’s caught out of position or flagged for a senseless penalty. 

Rounding out the safeties is sophomore Quinton Andrews, a rising star of the secondary.  In his first season of action, he led the defense with 80 tackles and five interceptions.  A frenetic defender, he plays with reckless abandon, yet really understands the angles when playing pass defense or delivering the knockout blow.  In just his second, Andrews already has all-Big East potential if he can dodge the off-field issues that have plagued him this off-season. 

The corners are hard-boiled seniors, yet very susceptible to the pass.  The best of the bunch is Antonio Lewis, who’s better known for his play on special teams, but is about to begin his second season as a starter in the secondary.  Fresh off leading the defense in passes broken up, he’s a terrific all-around athlete with above average speed.

Larry Williams’ seven career starts won’t keep him from looking over his shoulder unless he markedly improves his coverage skills.  He endured plenty of criticism in 2006 for being vulnerable on deep balls and too often out of position.   

Projected Top Reserves: In the defensive backfield, West Virginia has a nice blend of veteran and young depth that’ll be pushing the starters.  This is especially true at corner where Vaughn Rivers is a versatile senior with ten career starts and true sophomores Boogie Allen and Guesly Dervil have plenty of upward mobility on the depth chart.  Both worked their ways on to the field as freshmen, gaining valuable reps and experience that’ll serve them well this season.  At 6-2 and 200 pounds, Allen has the size-speed combination that has coaches thinking about a move to bandit safety. 

Senior Ridwan Malik and redshirt freshman Greg Davis will be the backups at spur and bandit, respectively.  A big hitter with a good feel for the game, Malik was slowed last year by nagging injuries.  The Mountaineers are eagerly awaiting the debut of 6-3, 200-pound Davis who’ll be one of Pugh’s understudies in 2007.           

Watch Out For…the arrivals of cornerback Ellis Lankster and safety Ryan Mundy.  While the talk of Lankster being a savior for the pass defense might be hyperbole, he was recruited out of Jones County (Miss.) Junior College to make an instant splash.  A playmaker on special teams and in the secondary, he has shut-down potential which is precisely what this defense needs.  Mundy is a 6-3, 215-pound senior with 35 games of experience at Michigan, and instant eligibility under the old NCAA transfer rule.
Strength: The safeties.  The collection of Wicks, Andrews, Pugh, Malik and Mundy is comprised of big hitters that can get upfield to harass the quarterback or make tackles for loss on running plays.  Now that Wicks cleared his academic hurdle, the Mountaineers will be loaded at safety in 2007.
Weakness: The corners.  It certainly wasn’t all their fault, but West Virginia was 109th nationally in pass defense a year ago largely due to the unpredictable play of the cornerbacks.  If things are going to get better, one of the young guys, such as Dervil or Lankster must evolve into a top-flight defender.
Outlook: The defense as a whole will be better which is going to help a secondary that returns so many familiar faces.  Although the numbers are going to improve, the Mountaineers will remain vulnerable against the two or three quality passers on this season’s schedule.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Junior Pat McAfee is expected to handle the kicking and punting duties much like he did over the final six games of last season.  He filled in admirably at punter after Scott Kozlowski made a costly mistake in the Louisville loss, averaging more than 43 yards a boot.  As a kicker, he was rock solid, nailing all of his 62 extra points and 17-of-22 field goals.  Seniors Darius Reynaud and Vaughn Rivers are a dynamite combination on kickoff and punt returns, respectively.

Projected Top Reserves: Once one of the top punters in the country, Kozlowski hasn’t been able to get out of the doghouse since last November.  He’s got a big leg and is a luxury for the special teams in the event McAfee can’t cut it this year as a punter.   

Watch Out For…McAfee.  In a pinch, he did an outstanding job as a punter last year, however, it remains to be seen whether pulling double duties for a full year will negatively impact his day job as the Mountaineer place-kicker.
Strength: McAfee.  He’s consistent, has a strong leg and handles everything for the Mountaineers, including kickoffs.  After two solid seasons in Morgantown, he should only get better over the second half of his college career.
Weakness: Long-range field goals.  Inside 40 yards, McAfee has been money, but beyond 40, he’s just 3-of-11, including 2-of-7 a year ago.  He’s got a strong enough leg to go long, however, if he’s lining up from 46 with the game on the line, there’ll be lots of sweaty palms in Milan Puskar.
Outlook: Like the special teams in general, the West Virginia kicking game will be in good shape in 2007 as long as McAfee is around.  The only intrigue surrounds his ability to continue punting at a high level and keeping Kozlowski on the bench.
Rating: 8


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