2007 West Virginia Preview - Defense
West Virginia Mountaineer Defense
Preview 2007 - Defense
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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.
Quinton Andrews, 80
Eric Wicks, 7
Interceptions: Quinton Andrews, 5
Star of the
Senior S Eric Wicks
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior CB
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
Strength of the defense: Run defense
Weakness of the defense: Pass defense, sacks
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
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.
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
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
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
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.