2009 West Virginia Preview - Defense
West Virginia LB Reed Williams
CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - West Virginia Mountaineer Defense
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What you need to know:
Head coach Bill Stewart retained coordinator Jeff
Casteel when he was named head coach. Shrewd move. Casteel has
perennially done more with less with a unit that doesn’t often
attract blue-chip recruits. His 3-3-5 stack relies on
undersized, overly-active athletes, who fly to the ball and play
to the whistle. The Mountaineers bring back enough talent—eight
starters and 19 letterwinners—to again be one of the stingiest
defenses in the Big East. At each level, there’s a potential
all-star, Scooter Berry up front, Reed Williams and J.T. Thomas
at linebacker, and Brandon Hogan and Sidney Glover in the
secondary. West Virginia yielded just 17 points a game in 2008,
a number it’ll flirt with again in 2009.
Star of the defense:
Senior LB Reed Williams
Tackles: J.T. Thomas, 65
Julian Miller, 3.5
Interceptions: Brandon Hogan, 3
Player that has to
step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Keith Tandy
Unsung star on the
rise: Junior CB Brandon Hogan
Best pro prospect:
Junior LB J.T. Thomas
Top three all-star
candidates: 1) Williams 2) Junior DT Scooter Berry 3)
the defense: The linebackers, red zone defense,
preventing big plays, creating turnovers
Weakness of the
defense: Edge pressure, depth at cornerback
Starters: The Mountaineers’ defensive alignment uses
three down linemen, led by 6-1, 280-pound junior
Scooter Berry, a
returning second team All-Big East performer. A two-year
starter at defensive end, he’s shifting inside to tackle,
where he’s expected to maintain his quickness, burst, and
ability to get penetration. In last year’s all-star
campaign, he had 34 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5
sacks, and three fumble recoveries.
Back at the nose
will be 6-2, 298-pound junior
Chris Neild, one of the strongest and toughest members of the
defense. A rock against the run and a high-motor defender,
he capped his first season as a starter with 47 tackles, 4.5
tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. He’s an ideal Mountaineer
player and the epitome of this blue-collar D.
lone starter at defensive end is expected to be 6-4,
Julian Miller, who showed flashes of being able to get
into the backfield in his first season. A quick, rangy
rusher, he debuted with 21 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and three
passes broken up as a regular in the rotation. The
Mountaineers had just 19 sacks in the final 12 games, so
more disruption is needed from the outside.
Reserves: Hot on the heels of Miller is 6-3,
255-pound junior Larry Ford, a former transfer from Coffeyville (Kans.) Junior
College. In his first season on campus, he showed a quick
first step and steady improvement, finishing with six
tackles and appearing in all 13 games. With a season behind
him, he’ll be more effective in 2009.
Neild’s backup at the nose is 6-1, 263-pound sophomore
Josh Shaw. An
undersized former walk-on, he likely showed enough quickness
and tenacity to earn a spot in the regular rotation when the
Watch Out For… junior-college transfer
West Virginia hasn’t been waiting forever for Finau. It just
feels that way to some in the program. A blue-chip recruit
with tackle size and the rushing ability of an end, he’ll
play right away if he’s able to qualify academically.
The inside guys. Now that Berry has made the switch and
Neild is a year older, West Virginia boasts a pair of tough
tackles, who’ll hope up well at the point of attack and
occasionally shoot the gaps to make stops for minus yards.
Proven edge rushers. Sure, Miller and Ford have untapped
potential, but neither is a slam dunk to provide the ‘eers
with a steady presence from the outside. When West Virginia
was getting to the quarterback in 2008, it was often
courtesy of a linebacker or a safety.
The Mountaineers are a lot like a ripened peach, rock solid
on the inside and a little soft on the outside. Berry and
Neild are going to make it very tough to establish the run
against this defense. Still, the line needs to generate more
of a push, enabling the back eight to sit tight a little
more often and defend the pass.
One star leaves, but another is back. Easing the blow of
Mortty Ivy’s graduation is the return from injury of 6-1,
228-pound senior Reed Williams, who sat out all but two games to heal his
surgically-repaired shoulders. When healthy, he’s as good a
linebacker as there is in the Big East, sniffing out run
plays from the middle of the field and wrapping up when he
reaches his target. In his last full season, he had a
team-high 107 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss three forced
fumbles, and an MVP award in the Fiesta Bowl. The importance
of his return to this team cannot be overstated.
Taking over for Ivy at strongside will be 6-1, 237-pound
junior Pat Lazear,
who has been building the last two years for this moment. A
heralded recruit and tremendous open field tackler, he’s
come off the bench regularly, making 30 tackles and picking
off a pass in 2008. Once he really learns the system, he’s
got the total package to be a very productive player in
At weakside, 6-2, 224-pound
J.T. Thomas is
back after breaking through with 65 tackles, 10 tackles for
loss, three sacks, and a couple of forced fumbles. The most
explosive and athletic of the Mountaineer linebackers, he’s
a defensive weapon whether coming hard on the blitz or
drifting back into pass coverage. With a full season now
behind him, a spot on the All-Big East team awaits.
Reserves: When Williams was forced to redshirt, 6-1,
240-pound junior Anthony Leonard stepped into the lineup and didn’t skip a beat. Now
that the incumbent is back, he’ll provide outstanding depth
to the second unit. Compact and hard-hitting, he earned six
starts, making 59 tackles and growing immeasurably.
Even more veteran depth and athleticism will come from 6-1,
220-pound senior Ovid
Goulbourne, a steady performer who knows the system
well. He appeared in a dozen games last season, making 25
tackles, but has been a little slow making it back from
Watch Out For…
Williams’ health. As of right now, he’s just fine, but
shoulder problems are a concern, especially for this type of
frenetic and physical defender. He’s a difference-maker when
he’s on the field, and West Virginia needs him for all 12
regular season games.
Run defense. The instincts of Williams, speed of Thomas, and
energy of Lazear give the Mountaineers an outstanding blend
of run defenders, who won’t let many plays get past the
second level. Add in Leonard and you’ve got one of the
league’s premier linebacker rotations.
Durability. Of the team’s top five linebackers, two are
making it back from shoulder surgery and one missed the end
of 2008 with a high ankle sprain. This is a terrific
ensemble of defenders, but only if everyone is healthy and
on the field.
Outlook: Whatever the defensive linemen miss, these
talented linebackers will be prepared to clean up. Even
after losing Ivy to the NFL, it’s a very talented and
diverse group that knows the 3-3-5 stack intimately.
Williams and Thomas are All-Big East-caliber, and Lazear and
Leonard aren’t that far behind.
Starters: The Mounties are loaded with depth at
safety. Cornerback? Not so much. Just a year after making a
move from wide receiver, 5-10, 188-pound junior
Brandon Hogan is
already the team’s top cover corner, which is both exciting
and troubling. He made great strides in his debut on
defense, making 60 tackles, picking off three passes,
breaking up seven passes, and recovering two fumbles. While
still raw in coverage, the explosiveness and speed are there
for him to be special over the next two seasons.
battle at right corner is a good one being led by 5-10,
Keith Tandy. While not in the driver’s seat quite yet,
he played well enough in the spring to take a slight lead
for the job into the summer. While he played sparingly in
2008, he did get the start in the bowl game with North
Carolina, an experience that’ll help him this fall.
Quinton Andrews will not be finishing his career in
Morgantown, which creates an opportunity for 6-0, 208-pound
senior Boogie Allen
at bandit safety. Although he’s played a lot of football
at West Virginia, making a career-high 49 stops and 3.5
tackles for loss last year, he needs to prove he can also
excel as an every-down player.
Robert Sands passes the eye test. Now, he’ll have to ace
what gets throw his way in the fall. A 6-5, 211-pound
condor, he covers a lot of ground and has the gigantic
wingspan needed to bat away passes. If the staff can
transform this raw physical specimen into a playmaker, the
entire secondary will reap the benefits.
force among the safeties is 5-11, 210-pound junior
who’ll be reprising his role as the starting spur safety. A
playmaker, with the right blend of athleticism and pop, he
excelled in 11 games, making 61 tackles, 4.5 tackles for
loss, and breaking up six passes. He could be ready for a
breakthrough third year with the program.
Reserves: Experience and depth at cornerback will
come courtesy of 5-11, 190-pound senior
who has started games in each of the last two seasons. A
fluid all-around athlete and a luxury to have on the second
unit, he had 19 tackles a year ago and will continue to be
an asset on special teams as well.
Nate Sowers is
pushing hard for a starting job at multiple safety spots.
The 6-1, 208-pound former quarterback and versatile athlete
is going to get on the field in some capacity. Last season,
a year after moonlighting at wide receiver, he played in a
dozen games and chipped in with 20 tackles.
Eain Smith made
enough of an impression in his first season of action to
guarantee a spot in the rotation and no worse than the
backup job at strong safety. Quick and aggressive at 5-11
and 200 pounds, he started four games as a freshman, making
39 tackles and growing immensely as a complete defender.
Watch Out For…
Glover to become a big deal in the Big East. This defense is
designed to create opportunities for its safeties, something
Glover began to do before injuring his knee late in the
year. He has all of the physical tools needed to roam the
field and wreak havoc.
Depth at safety. The cupboard is well stocked at safety,
where every position welcomes back a letterman and a backup
with some experience. Versatile safeties are an integral
part of this system, and West Virginia has plenty of them.
Pass defense. The Mountaineers have enough quality athletes
and defensive backs to blanket opposing receivers,
especially in the passing-deprived Big East. Last year’s
unit only allowed 11 touchdowns all season and under six
yards per passing attempt.
Yes, the Mountaineers are a little thin at cornerback, but
when exactly is it going to catch up with them? Against
Marshall? Syracuse? Pittsburgh? This schedule is tailor-made
for a program trying to break in a new cornerback on the
right side. West Virginia will be just fine in pass defense,
while the safeties provide ample support against the run.
Starters: Replacing QB Pat White has naturally made
all the headlines, but finding a successor to Pat McAfee
will be pretty important as well. An All-Big East second
teamer as a kicker and
a punter, his graduation leaves a gaping void on the
special teams. Coming out of spring, the favorite to take
over at kicker was redshirt freshman
Tyler Bitancurt, who has been accurate in short range, but needs to
maintain that accuracy on longer kicks.
to get a challenge in the summer from
Josh Lider, a senior who transferred from Western Washington after
the school dropped its football program. Last year, he hit
10-of-15 field goals and 33-of-37 extra points.
situation is a little less complicated at punter, where
Kozlowski is expected to regain a job he lost three
years ago. He hasn’t played much since 2006, but still has
an edge in experience over junior
He’s also likely to handle kickoffs, provided he shows off
adequate leg strength.
The return game is likely to
be in the sure-hands of juniors
Brandon Hogan and
Eddie Davis. Hogan, in particular is speedy and has the potential to
break off long runs.
Watch Out For…
the competition at placekicker. McAfee was virtually
automatic during his career in Morgantown. Now, the ‘eers
aren’t banking on similar results, but either Bitancurt or
Lider needs to pop the short-range kicks when the chances
Strength: Covering punts. For the second straight
season, West Virginia was air-tight in punt coverage,
finishing 13th nationally at just over five yards
a return. There’s no reason to believe that trend won’t
continue again in 2009.
Covering kicks. As good as the Mountaineers were on punt
coverage last fall, they were equally bad on kickoff
coverage. In fact, they finished a dismal 117th
in the country, attracting plenty of attention from the
staff in the offseason.
Without McAfee, this is a pedestrian unit that could cost
the Mountaineers a game or two later this year. With the
exception of the punt coverage team, mediocrity will be the
buzz word to describe Bill Stewart’s special teamers.