2010 West Virginia Preview - Defense
West Virginia NT Chris Neild
West Virginia NT Chris Neild
Posted Jul 12, 2010

CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - West Virginia Mountaineer Defense

West Virginia Mountaineers

Preview 2010 - Defense

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What you need to know: With nine starters back from an already stout defense, coordinator Jeff Casteel's biggest offseason objectives are to develop depth and keep the veterans focused. The Mountaineers boast at least one returning all-star from each level, NT Chris Neild, LB J.T. Thomas, and defensive backs Brandon Hogan and Robert Sands. And that doesn't even count DT Scooter Berry, a 2008 all-star, and DE Julian Miller, who got shafted a year ago. Provided it doesn't have to look too far down the bench, West Virginia will be one of the Big East's stingiest defenses against the run and the pass. While Casteel doesn't always land the best high school talent, he continues to have a knack for putting really good athletes into his 3-3-5 stack and molding them into outstanding playmaking defenders.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Pat Lazear, 78
Sacks: Julian Miller, 9
Interceptions: Robert Sands, 5

Star of the defense: Senior LB J.T. Thomas
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior LB Anthony Leonard
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DE Julian Miller
Best pro prospect: Senior CB Brandon Hogan
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Thomas, 2) Hogan, 3) Senior NT Chris Neild
Strength of the defense: All-star talent at each level, run defense, athleticism, preventing big plays, third down defense, red zone defense
Weakness of the defense: Lapses in coverage, depth, creating consistent pressure

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: With all three starters back from last season, West Virginia is poised to have one of the best starting defensive lines in the Big East. At the lone defensive end spot, 6-4, 260-pound junior Julian Miller is coming off a breakout year that included 53 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, and nine sacks. Somehow, a spot on the all-league team evaded him, but that should change this fall. Despite bulking up considerably since arriving, he's maintained the speed and quickness that originally landed him a free ride.

Of the three returning starters, only 6-2, 301-pound senior NT Chris Neild earned a spot on the All-Big East team. His numbers, 35 tackles and a couple of tackles for loss, don't even begin to describe his value to the defense, especially as a run-stuffer. A pillar at the point of attack, with a non-stop motor and a warrior's demeanor, he occupies more than one blocker and makes everyone around him better.

At defensive tackle, 6-1, 287-pound senior Scooter Berry is an enigma. Although his talent is unquestioned, he's had occasional problems keeping his focus and staying out of trouble. Oh, and he's also coming off shoulder surgery. Last year was a forgettable one, which included a suspension and a significant drop in playing time. He had just 15 tackles, 2.5 tackles , and a sack, but still has the quick feet and get-off to close his career with all-star recognition.

Projected Top Reserves: If Berry has any issues that limit his availability, 6-2, 264-pound sophomore Jorge Wright will see his playing time spike dramatically. He got his feet wet in eight games, making 10 stops and two tackles for loss in a building block debut. While undersized, he relies on his quick hands and light feet to beat opposing linemen to the backfield.

The heir apparent to Neild and a luxury on the second team, 6-1, 278-pound junior Josh Taylor is back to bolster the depth at nose tackle. When Berry was out last year, he shifted to defensive tackle, starting seven games and made 23 stops, 3.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks. A former walk-on, he's a self-made lineman who typifies the blue-collar nature of the Mountaineer D.

Watch Out For .... redshirt freshman DE Will Clarke. No, he's not beating out Miller, but after wowing the staff and his teammates in the offseason, he might be hard to keep on the sidelines. While still raw, he has the chiseled 6-6, 265-pound frame, long wingspan, and explosive first step that bear watching during his initial season of action.
Strength: First unit stability. Not only do all three starters return from last season, but one was an all-star in 2008, one made the team in 2009, and one got robbed for postseason honors last fall. Neild, Miller, Berry are a good mix of run-stoppers, who can also get penetration and make stops for minus yards.
Weakness: Pass rushers...after Miller. The junior is a budding star on the outside, but he can use a little help. After his nine sacks a year ago, no one who had more than a pair is back with the Mountaineers. If Miller starts getting doubled, West Virginia needs someone else to step up and apply pressure.
Outlook: Neild is a rock and Miller is on his way to becoming one. If Berry can get his act together and recapture his 2008 form, West Virginia has the parts for one dozen or so best starting defensive lines in America. Even if Berry is average, it's a unit that'll get a positive push all season long.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters: Although Reed Williams must be replaced in the middle, the Mountaineers still boast a talented and veteran group of linebackers. Senior Anthony Leonard got a dress rehearsal for succeeding Williams two years ago, and is no stranger to live action. A three-time letterwinner, with six starts in 2008, he picked up 23 tackles, three tackles for loss, and a sack as a reserve last fall. A compact and hard-hitting 6-1, 246-pounder, he's unlikely to skip a beat after this promotion.

The star of the second level will once again be 6-2, 225-pound senior J.T. Thomas, an All-Big East first teamer from his weakside spot. One of the most frenetic and athletic playmakers on this side of the ball, he plays hard and fast on every down. A weapon that the staff will employ all over the field, including in pass coverage, he had a career-high 76 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two picks, and five pass breakups a year ago.

It took some time getting to this point, but 6-0, 237-pound senior Pat Lazear is really coming into his own at strongside. In his first full season as a regular, he led the team with 78 tackles and had six for minus. Fundamentally-sound in the open field, he plays with maximum intensity and rarely misses a tackle. He's eyeing a spot on the all-star team in his final year of eligibility.

Projected Top Reserves: Providing depth behind Thomas at weakside will once again be 6-1, 238-pound junior Najee Goode. A seasoned backup, who's played in all 26 games of the last two seasons, he had 11 tackles and broke up a pair of passes in 2009. He's also trained at middle linebacker, bringing versatility and thump to this unit.

The future at strongside belongs to 6-1, 234-pound sophomore Donavan Miles, who has bulked up considerably since seeing limited action a year ago. A physical run defender, he does a nice job of shedding blocks and diagnosing the play. Barring a regression, he'll be the favorite to start in 2011.

Watch Out For .... a fair amount of blitzing. While there won't be regular jail breaks, the seasoned Mountaineer secondary will allow this instinctive, veteran group of linebackers to pin its ears back on occasion in an effort to disrupt opposing quarterbacks in obvious passing situations.
Strength: Savvy. West Virginia has a luxury at linebacker, three seniors who've played a ton of football for this program. More than just accomplished athletes, Thomas, Lazear, and Leonard are heady leaders, who know the system, the playbook, and the calls as well as anyone on this side of the ball.
Weakness: Depth in the middle. On the outside, the B team is set with Goode and Miles. Behind Leonard, however, the ‘eers could turn to 6-0, 231-pound redshirt freshman Branko Busick. While the staff believes he has a bright future, his next snap will be his first at this level.
Outlook: Whatever the defensive linemen can't corral, these veteran linebackers will be prepared to clean up. Even after losing Williams, it's an outstanding starting unit that knows the 3-3-5 stack intimately. Thomas and Lazear are All-Big East timber, while Leonard will flourish in an expanded role.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters: After finishing second in Big East pass efficiency D and allowing just four touchdown passes over the final five games, West Virginia is in great shape in the secondary. All but a single starter returns, led by All-Big East first team CB Brandon Hogan. Two years removed from being a wide receiver, the 5-10, 189-pounder senior is drawing the attention of NFL scouts as the Mountaineers' premier cover guy. A feisty and dynamic athlete, he's not afraid to get physical, making 74 stops and a team-best 11 pass breakups. If he keeps working on footwork and back pedal, he's going to make a lot of money at the next level.

When quarterbacks try to avoid Hogan's area, they'll be looking to exploit 5-10, 198-pound junior Keith Tandy, the other corner and a returning starter. In his first full season, he got better as the year progressed, finishing with 61 tackles, four tackles for loss, and three picks. He has good size in run support, now needing to improve in coverage and cut down on the number of blown assignments.

At free safety, West Virginia has a budding superstar on its hands. Junior Robert Sandsalways had the measurables, but began to put it all together in 2009. In his second year as a starter, he parlayed 65 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, five interceptions, and eight breakups into a spot on the All-Big East first team. Uniquely built at 6-5 and 221 pounds, he has the long gait and even longer wingspan to create havoc wherever he's roaming the field.

After calling spur safety home for the last two years, 5-11, 207-pound senior Sidney Glover is moving to bandit safety. A veteran of 21 starts and one of the hardest hitters in Morgantown, he made 60 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and a pair of interceptions in 2009. Healthy again after being slowed by a knee injury at times last fall, he's banking on finishing his career with a flurry.

The newcomer of the group at spur is expected to be 6-3, 215-pound sophomore Terence Garvin, who had 10 tackles in 10 games to kick off his college career. In terms of instincts and tackling skills, he's going to be raw for a while, but has the total physical package to convince the coaching staff to be patient.

Projected Top Reserves: If Sands leaves early for the NFL after this season, 5-11, 204-pound junior Eain Smith will be the likely beneficiary in 2011. A letterwinner in each of his first two seasons, he started four games in 2008 and had 17 tackles as a backup free safety last year. Quick and physical, a player with his experience is a luxury to have on special teams and the second unit.

How athletic and versatile is 6-0, 188-pound senior Eddie Davis? The team flirted in the spring with the idea of using him at wide receiver, a position struggling with depth. He could make it a permanent or once again be the Mountaineers' top cornerback off the sidelines. That decision will depend on the summer development of young defensive backs, like redshirt freshman Brodrick Jenkins and sophomore Pat Miller .

Watch Out For .... Sands to become a national entity before too long. Outside of the Big East, he's a complete unknown, but that ought to change before too long. With his blend of size, speed, and ball skills, you can remain under the radar for only so long.
Strength: Ball hawks. The Mountaineer secondary is comprised of a bunch of really good athletes, who break well on the ball and have the hands of receivers. Last year's squad led the Big East with 17 interceptions, and that was without getting much takeaway contribution from Hogan, who was often avoided by quarterbacks.
Weakness: Inconsistency. As good as this group can be, it still hasn't put it all together. It still allowed 19 touchdown passes, second to only Syracuse in the Big East, and too often let receivers get behind the last line of defense. Collectively, they need to play with more discipline and temper the need to always go for the game-changing play.
Outlook: The secondary has as good a collection of athletes as any Big East squad. And with an added year of experience and offseason training, they'll be better equipped to avoid the lapses that plagued them in 2009. Throw in a schedule that's light on prolific passers, and the Mountaineers have no excuses for not being air-tight from start to finish.
Rating: 8

Special Teams

Projected Starters: It's a tale of two very different stories for West Virginia in the kicking game. At placekicker, sophomore Tyler Bitancourt is coming off an All-Big East first team debut, hitting 13-of-15 field goal attempts and all but one extra point try. A clutch and accurate kicker, he's yet to show a ton of range, topping out at 45 yards a year ago.

The situation at punter is far more tenuous, as All-American Scott Kozlowski needs to be replaced. The contenders are senior Greg Pugnetti and sophomore Corey Smith. Pugnetti has been in Morgantown for a long time, but has no relevant experience so it might not matter.

Smith is an Alabama transfer, with some pop in his leg, but he, too, hasn't had any relevant snaps at this level. This will wind up being an underrated competition that might not have a winner until just before the opener.

Watch Out For… more firepower from the return game. Ranking 44th nationally on punt returns and 61st on kickoffs is well below the potential of Jock Sanders, Tavon Austin, and Brandon Hogan, three burners handling the duties. Count on at least one of these flyers to take a punt or kickoff back for six this fall.
Strength: Kicker. Bitancourt was a pleasant surprise in his first season, showing razor-sharp accuracy and poise late in close games. The Mountaineers have a talented and young kicker for the next three seasons, which will be especially valuable if the offense stalls a little more than normal with an unproven quarterback.
Weakness: Punter. There's going to be inescapable drop-off from Kozlowski, who was an unsung hero of last year's defensive prowess. How steep of a drop-off? It depends on how well either Pugnetti or Smith embraces the biggest role of his athletic life.
Outlook: You can pretty much bank on Bitancourt on the intermediate stuff, and the return game and coverage teams should improve on last season with a little more offseason work. The key for this unit will be the new punter, an area that West Virginia has excelled in over the past few seasons.
Rating: 7

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- 2010 West Virginia Defense | 2010 West Virginia Depth Chart
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