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2008 West Virginia Preview - Defense
West Virginia S Quinton Andrews
West Virginia S Quinton Andrews
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 6, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - West Virginia Mountaineer Defense

West Virginia Mountaineers

Preview 2008 - Defense


- 2008 CFN West Virginia Preview | 2008 WVU Offense Preview
-
2008 WVU Defense Preview | 2008 WVU Depth Chart
- 2007 West Virginia Preview
| 2006 CFN West Virginia Preview 

What you need to know: Coordinator Jeff Casteel was retained by Bill Stewart, which was great news considering how well the Mountaineers performed in 2007.  The defense was air-tight in all facets, allowing just 300 yards and 18 points a game, while finishing ninth nationally in turnover margin.  Maintaining that level of play, however, is about to get much tougher.  Even without Marc Magro, the linebackers will be fine, but the defensive line must be rebuilt and there’s a serious depth issue in the secondary.  While Casteel will continue to lean on undersized athletes that fly to the ball out of the 3-3-5 stack, he’s going to need help from a bunch of newcomers and underclassmen.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Reed Williams, 107
Sacks: Mortty Ivy, 6
Interceptions: Several with 1

Star of the defense: Senior LB Reed Williams
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Kent Richardson
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore NT Chris Neild
Best pro prospect: Senior LB Mortty Ivy
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Williams 2) Ivy 3) Sophomore DT Scooter Berry
Strength of the defense: The linebackers
Weakness of the defense: Inexperience in the secondary

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The question marks on the Mountaineer defense are most pronounced along a defensive line that parts ways with NT Keilen Dykes and DE Johnny Dingle.  Although just a sophomore, the new anchor of the unit will be 6-2, 285-pound DT Scooter Berry, a surprise Freshman All-American who’s accepting more of a leadership role.  Quick off the snap and a lineman that plays with good pad level, he had 27 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and three fumble recoveries. 

At the nose, sophomore Chris Neild is making the move up from the second team after backing up Dykes and making 13 tackles in 11 games.  Even at 6-3 and 305 pounds, he’s a nimble athlete with the quick feet and good balance to develop into a force on the inside for West Virginia.

Junior Zac Cooper has the early edge to start at defensive end, but to remain in the lead, he’ll need to hold off an impressive collection of newcomers and first-time players.  A 6-3, 225-pound converted linebacker, he was moved to defensive line in order to make better use of his speed and pass rushing skills.          

Projected Top Reserves: Lurking close behind Cooper at end are redshirt freshman Julian Miller and junior college transfer Larry Ford.  A rangy, 6-5, 220-pounder, Miller showed the athletic ability and explosion around the edge to earn defensive Scout Team Player of the Year honors.  He needs to adds some bulk, but flashes enough upside to at least be a regular part of the rotation. 

Ford is a wider option at 6-4 and 240 pounds, with the ability to play the run as well as getting pressure on the passer.  He got a ton of offers coming out of Coffeyville (Kans.) Junior College, choosing West Virginia because of the immediate need for pass rushers.     

Senior Doug Slavonic brings the best combination of size and experience to the second team tackles.  At 6-8 and 260 pounds, he earned his first letter a year ago, making nine tackles in spot duty.  Slated to back up Berry, he’s athletic enough and has the wingspan to contribute at end if the need arises.

Watch Out For… JUCO transfer DE Tevita Finau.  Although he didn’t take part in spring ball, Finau is expected to challenge for playing time as soon as he arrives on campus.  One of the program’s top recruits from last February, he has off-the-charts measurables for a 6-5, 275-pound end.  If he has any pass rushing skills at all, Finau could develop into perfect tonic for West Virginia’s line woes.   
Strength: Upside potential at end.  No, neither Miller, Ford, nor Finau have played a down in Morgantown, but even if two of them flop, at least one is going to emerge as a pass-rushing beast on a line that needs someone to collapse the pocket. 
Weakness: Proven nose tackle.  The ‘eers led the Big East in run defense, in part, because of the play of Dykes in the center of the line.  Neild is no slouch, but he’ll need to step up his game in order to adequately replace a three-year starter and First Team All-Big East run stuffer.
Outlook: Although the Mountaineers need a couple of untested linemen to have big years, things aren’t nearly as bad as they look on paper.  Neild and Berry have bright futures on the inside, and there are enough touted ends to piece together a feisty pass rush.   
Rating: 7.5

Linebackers

Projected Starters: A couple of returning starters and quality depth have the Mountaineers feeling real good about their linebackers heading into the season.  Back at middle linebacker is senior Reed Williams, who’s coming off a banner season that ended with a team-high 107 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and an MVP award in the Fiesta Bowl.  A tough, instinctive player at only 6-2 and 225 pounds, he sheds blockers well and is never far from the ball. 

Manning the strongside is senior Mortty Ivy, who broke through with 89 stops, 11 tackles for loss, six sacks, and three forced fumbles.  One of the unit’s best athletes at 6-3 and 235 pounds, he has tremendous range and the closing speed needed to wreak havoc on the blitz. 

The graduation of Marc Magro and dismissal of Johnny Holmes has created an opportunity for sophomore J.T. Thomas at weakside.  While only 6-2 and 220 pounds, he plays the game extremely fast and with outstanding range, and is coming off a bang-up spring.  In his first season of action, he had 19 tackles and three tackles for loss, flashing the athleticism and field awareness that’s made it impossible to keep him out of the lineup. 

Projected Top Reserves: As good as the starters are, the staff is almost as excited about the second unit.  Behind Ivy at strongside is sophomore Pat Lazear.  At 6-1 and 235 pounds, he’s a powerful thumper that was heavily recruited in high school, but is best known for his run-ins with the law before getting to Morgantown.  The way Lazear plays the game, he has the potential to become a crowd favorite at Milan Puskar before long. 

The Mountaineers were eagerly awaiting the debut of JUCO transfer Archie Sims, but a hamstring injury never healed properly, forcing him to redshirt in 2007.  While undersized at 6-0 and 215 pounds, he’s a heat-seeking missile that’ll provide plenty of competition to Thomas at weakside. 

Inside, 6-2, 240-pound sophomore Anthony Leonard earned his first letter on defense and special teams, registering 13 tackles as Williams’ understudy.  Quick enough to play any of the linebacker positions, he’ll be auditioning to top the depth chart a year from now. 

Watch Out For… Lazear.  Whether he was on the field or away from it, Lazear proved to be a powder-keg as a teenager.  Now a little older, the Mountaineers are hoping he’s matured from the kid that pled guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery of a Maryland Smoothie King.  If he has his act together, Lazear could eventually be a special player in Morgantown.     
Strength: Depth.  Had Sims not gotten injured in September, the second team would have been comprised entirely of letterwinners.  Even so, the Mountaineers love their linebacker depth and speed, feeling comfortable that all of the backups are good enough to get reps at key moments during a game. 
Weakness: Outside depth and inexperience.  Magro was a beast for the West Virginia defense, and will be missed.  Even with the upside of Lazear and Sims, their lack of big game experience could shine through at times this season.     
Outlook: Whatever the defensive line misses, the linebackers will be prepared to clean up.  On Williams and Ivy alone, the Mountaineers can stake claim to having the best set of linebackers in the Big East.  If Thomas plays like he did in March, they could have one of the dozen or so most productive units in the country.      
Rating: 8

Secondary

Projected Starters: Bandit safety Quinton Andrews is the lone returning starter in a secondary that was ravaged by graduations.  The Mountaineers lose four starters and seven letterwinners, creating vacancies throughout the five-man defensive backfield.  Now in his junior year, Andrews will be counted on to be the physical and emotional leader of the unit.  The 6-0, 210-pound knockout puncher is looking to bounce back from a modest second season that included 51 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and seven passes defended. 

One of the primary backups a year ago, junior Boogie Allen is the frontrunner at free safety.  At 6-2 and 195 pounds, he possesses the blend of size and speed to be valuable against the run and the pass.  Allen had 14 tackles as sophomore, gaining the experience he can call upon in his first year as a regular. 

Rounding out the safeties will be Charles Pugh, a senior that’s played in 37 games for the Mountaineers.  At 6-0 and 200 pounds, he’s an intense and hard-hitting defender that sometimes lets his emotions get the best of him.  Playing in 12 games, he had 19 tackles and a sack, giving West Virginia a blitzing option out of the secondary. 

The favorites to take over at cornerback are juniors Kent Richardson and Guesly Dervil.  Richardson started a couple of games a year ago, making nine tackles and lending a hand on special teams.  He’s a fluid 6-1, 195-pounder that the coaches hope will develop into the Mountaineers best cover corner. 

The 6-0, 180-pound Dervil has mostly played in blowouts and on special teams.  He’s got the body and the athleticism to excel at the position, but needs to continue honing his cover and ball skills to remain ahead of the competition.

Projected Top Reserves: Battling for jobs at cornerback are junior Ellis Lankster and sophomore Brantwon Bowser.  While Lankster didn’t quite make a splash as expected in his first season out of Jones County (Miss.) Junior College, the junior is pushing for the job at boundary corner.  A potential playmaker and shut-down defender at 5-10 and 190 pounds, he had 16 tackles and a pick after serving a three-game suspension. 

In Bowser, West Virginia has landed one of the nation’s top JUCO corners for a second straight year.  Long and lean at 6-0 and 180 pounds, he flashed great speed and good one-on-one coverage skills at Phoenix College, but will need to adapt quickly to the speed at this level in order to unseat Dervil.   

Sophomore Sidney Glover has moved over from spur to back up Andrews at bandit safety.  A tenacious 6-0, 215-pound defender, he won’t shy away from sticking bigger players, making 18 tackles as a reserve in his first season.  Junior Nate Sowers, a former quarterback, has found a home on defense.  A terrific athlete at 6-2 and 215 pounds, he’s currently behind Pugh at strong safety.

Watch Out For… more man coverages.  Although his secondary is inexperienced, coordinator Jeff Casteel believes he has the athletes to handle more one-on-one opportunities, opening things up for the safeties and linebackers to freelance a little more.    
Strength: Athleticism.  Can they cover?  We’ll see.  However, the Mountaineer secondary is chock full of outstanding athletes that run well and are built big enough to support in run defense.   
Weakness: Experience at corner.  While West Virginia will be fine at safety, it remains to be seen if Richardson, Lankster, and Dervil can hold up in a conference that’s home to a fair number of tall and athletic downfield receivers.     
Outlook: The Mountaineers will struggle to prevent the big play against the better quarterbacks on the schedule.  Wasn’t it just two years ago that West Virginia was home to the Big East’s most generous secondary?  The unit improved dramatically last year because it was loaded with seasoned vets and the pass rush was among the best in the country.  Now that both the defensive line and the secondary are being retooled, West Virginia will be vulnerable against the likes of Cody Hawkins, Hunter Cantwell, Mike Teel, and Matt Grothe.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters: The return of Pat McAfee ensures that West Virginia will be home to one of the Big East’s most experienced placekickers, punters, and kickoff specialists.  Entering his fourth season as the Mountaineer kicker and second as the punter, the 6-1, 220-pound senior has a big leg, but was a little less consistent a year ago, making 13-of-19 field goal attempts.  As the punter, however, he owned a robust 42.6-yard average, which was good for second best in the conference. 

Redshirt freshman Ben Rios and sophomore David Brewer are emergency kickers with an eye on the job in 2009.  Senior Scott Kozlowski lost his grip on the punting job two years ago, but brings experience to the position in the event his number gets called. 

The departures of Vaughn Rivers and Darius Reynaud have opened up the competition among the return men.  Sophomores Noel Devine and Jock Sanders are too flammable in the open field not to factor prominently on kickoffs.  Devine led the ‘eers a year ago with 511 yards on 22 touches, and can go the distance with even a sliver of daylight.

Watch Out For…McAfee.  Yeah, he regressed a tad in his first year pulling double duty, but it needs to be noted that two of his six missed field goals came from beyond 50 yards.  In fact, McAfee improved dramatically on intermediate kicks, a problem in his first few seasons.
Strength: Covering kicks.  The Mountaineers led the Big East in punt coverage and did a solid job on kickoffs, preventing big plays and lengthening the field for opposing offenses.
Weakness: The return game.  It’s not as if the returners are awful, but for all the speed in Morgantown, you’d figure the Mountaineers would be good for a couple of special teams touchdowns every year.  On the contrary, they lacked big plays on punts and kickoffs a year ago. 
Outlook: As McAfee goes, so goes the West Virginia special teams.  Proof that Patrick White isn’t the only dual-threat in Morgantown, he’s versatile enough to challenge for all-league honors as both a placekicker and a punter.  The Mountaineers have enough fleet-footed athletes to excel in coverage and in the return game.
Rating: 8