Linebackers suddenly a plus for Mountaineers
SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Jeff Casteel has spent the first half of West Virginia's football season trying to piece together West Virginia's defense and seems well on his way to succeeding.
That's the good news. After a sometimes uneven start, WVU is now ranked No. 16 in the country in total defense and hasn't given up a touchdown in seven quarters.
The even better news is that Casteel is now beginning to get all of the parts back at his disposal, too.
Heading into tonight's game with Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, West Virginia's defensive coordinator has virtually a full complement of players. Defensive lineman Julian Miller appears as strong as he's been since suffering an ankle injury during the preseason. and the secondary has managed to pretty much maintain its health.
But most significantly, Casteel's linebacking corps - the weakest link in WVU's defensive rebuilding process this season - is as strong as it has been.
Sophomore linebacker Doug Rigg is expected to be able to play tonight after missing two games with a broken bone in his wrist. Redshirt freshman Jewone Snow is vastly improved after replacing Rigg and gaining experience. All in all, the Mountaineers seem to have at least five linebackers who can share time.
Not bad for a team that went into the season with only one proven commodity, Najee Goode, at the position.
"Doug will play. Jewone will play,'' Casteel said. "We'll play everybody and it gives us more flexibility now. We can do different things with Naj and Doug.''
Indeed, with Rigg back - although it is still unclear how much he will play this soon - it gives Casteel all kinds of flexibility that he didn't have just a few weeks ago. When the season started, Goode played in the middle (Mike), but he's equally adept at all three spots. Rigg was a first-time starter on the strong side (Sam), as was Casey Vance on the weak side (Will).
The only other player in the equation was junior-college transfer Josh Francis, but he couldn't wrestle the starting job from Vance because he hadn't adapted to a higher level of play and the system. No one other than Goode was adept at playing more than one position.
Rigg's injury, ironically, might have been the best thing that could have happened. It forced Snow into the lineup, and he had to play Mike. Goode went back to Sam, where he played last season, and Vance and Francis continued to alternate at Will.
Now, with Rigg back, Casteel has two middle linebackers (Snow and Goode), two Sams (Rigg and Goode) and perhaps four Wills (Vance, Francis, Goode and Rigg).
That's a luxury Casteel eventually will use, rotating players and keeping everyone fresh. That is, after Rigg works his way back
"Doug will be ready. He should be ready to go,'' Casteel said. "But he's just getting into practice. He has some rust to knock off.
"And when he does, it just gives us another guy and depth. We'll mix it up.''
The biggest question mark still is at Will, however. Vance, a plucky fifth-year former walk-on, was the starter at the beginning of the season, was replaced for a game by Francis, but since then Vance has probably played more. Francis started and played the whole way against LSU, and then Vance started against Bowling Green. But Francis replaced Vance for most of the series in that game. Then against Connecticut, Vance started again, but this time remained in the game virtually the whole afternoon.
Casteel said who plays is simply a matter of who deserves it at the end of the week.
"It's just based on film evaluation,'' Casteel said, referring not only to the previous game but practice as well. "It's all about evaluating and trying to put your best guys out on the field.
"We're going to try to get the best guys out there and the guys who show the ability to do the things we need them to do. That's why we practice and why we film everything and then stay in here all night watching it. Josh has made some strides and then he'll take a step back. Hopefully he's going to grow into a guy who can play on a consistent basis. But he needs to become consistent.''
The return of Rigg, though, creates some different possibilities. Snow could remain in the lineup at Mike, while Goode and Rigg man the two outside spots. That's no doubt a combination Casteel will look at as the weeks go on.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.