Mountaineers defense a mix of old, new
MORGANTOWN - The questions surrounding West Virginia's retooled defense heading into Saturday's season opener with Marshall and beyond are almost too numerous to list.
New scheme, new players, new coaches, new attitude; depth, pass coverage, pass rush - pick an issue, any issue.
Dana Holgorsen, though, has one point of interest that seems to override all others where his defense is concerned. And it deals more with mindset and mentality than anything specific.
"My biggest concern is replacing guys like Keith Tandy and Najee Goode, who were the backbone of what we did defensively and were the best leaders that we had on the team,'' Holgorsen said. "It takes game-type experiences to see which one of those guys are going to step up and become leaders and guys that we can rely on when things aren't going good or whatever it is.''
He's not alone.
"They're not leaders until the bullets are flying and things are going bad,'' said Joe DeForest, himself a rookie of sorts in his first season as a defensive coordinator. "We just don't know how guys are going to react.''
Indeed, there is actually a good bit of experience returning to West Virginia's defense this season. Granted, even those experienced players are dealing with a new scheme and new coaches, but among the defenders - including those listed in backup roles - 11 have started games and six have pretty much a full season as starters under their belt - Terence Garvin (24 starts), Jorge Wright (13), Darwin Cook (13), Will Clarke (11), Pat Miller (11) and Doug Rigg (9). The others are Brodrick Jenkins (4), Jared Barber (2), Josh Francis (1) and Wes Tonkery (1). Jewone Snow has also started seven games, but isn't on the depth chart because of injuries.
But the missing include most of the guys who last season got in the faces of others and motivated - guys like Tandy and Goode, Julian Miller and Eain Smith, even Bruce Irvin.
"There are six or seven returning starters, guys like Terence Garvin and Darwin Cook, Pat Miller and Brodrick Jenkins, Will Clarke and Jorge Wright,'' Holgorsen said. "I just need to see which ones are going to step up when things are going bad. And the only way you can kind of figure that out is game time.''
Perhaps just as significant, though, is the strange mix of experience - and complete absence of it - on the defense. While there are those 11 with starting experience, there are also 11 true and redshirt freshmen on the depth chart who have not only never started a game, but never played in one, even on special teams.
"We've got a strange combination of guys that are returning starters and guys that haven't ever played,'' Holgorsen said. "We think we've got seven or eight true freshmen who are going to play based on need. Hopefully they can grow up pretty quick and adjust to the speed of the game.
"We've got a lot of bodies, a lot of new bodies. I'm looking forward to seeing those guys get out there and play and see which ones step up when things get tough.''
If nothing else, Holgorsen and the coaches have exhausted their opportunities to see the new guys in practice and find out what they can do. The defense during fall camp was like a revolving door, which is not unexpected given that a new set of defensive coaches had very little knowledge of the personnel they inherited.
"We've played so many bodies over the course of the last three and a half weeks that it gets to the point where you have to have to have some live bullets fired at you in order to truly know the answer,'' Holgorsen said. "But we've put them in a whole bunch of situations, we've had normal tempo stuff, we've done a whole lot of two-minute drills; we've practiced every situation that I can come up with and we've done it at a very fast rate with a whole lot of different bodies out there.
"I think we've prepared them well and now it's just about getting them out there to see if they can actually handle the speed of the game and the atmosphere and the live bullets.''