2009 West Virginia Preview - Defense
West Virginia LB Reed Williams
West Virginia LB Reed Williams
Posted May 5, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - West Virginia Mountaineer Defense

West Virginia Mountaineers

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN West Virginia Preview | 2009 WVU Offense Preview
2009 WVU Defense Preview | 2009 WVU Depth Chart
- 2009 CFN WVU Preview | 2007 WVU Preview
| 2006 WVU Preview 

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.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: J.T. Thomas, 65
Sacks: Julian Miller, 3.5
Interceptions: Brandon Hogan, 3

Star of the defense: Senior LB Reed Williams
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) Thomas
Strength of the defense: The linebackers, red zone defense, preventing big plays, creating turnovers
Weakness of the defense: Edge pressure, depth at cornerback

Defensive Line

Projected 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.

The lone starter at defensive end is expected to be 6-4, 248-pound sophomore 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.

Projected Top 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.

For now, 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 season begins.

Watch Out For… junior-college transfer Tevita Finau. 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. 
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
Outlook: 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.   
Rating: 7.5


Projected Starters: 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 Morgantown.

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.  

Projected Top 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 shoulder surgery.

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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
Rating: 8.5


Projected 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.

The battle at right corner is a good one being led by 5-10, 198-pound sophomore 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.  

At strong safety, sophomore 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.

The emerging force among the safeties is 5-11, 210-pound junior Sidney Glover, 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.    

Projected Top Reserves: Experience and depth at cornerback will come courtesy of 5-11, 190-pound senior Kent Richardson, 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.

Senior 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.

Sophomore 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.
Strength: 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. 
Weakness: 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.
Outlook: 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.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected 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.

He’s going 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.

The situation is a little less complicated at punter, where senior Scott 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 Greg Pugnetti. 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 are there.
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.
Weakness: 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.
Outlook: 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.
Rating: 6


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