Defensive upgrade is a WVU priority
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - If it seems as if Will Clarke has been a part of West Virginia's football program a long, long time, well, it's because he has.
He was a part of Bill Stewart's first full recruiting class, one of just six fifth-year seniors this season who arrived as scholarship recruits in 2009. Of those six, only safety Darwin Cook (23) has started more games than Clarke's 22.
He's an iron man in the strictest sense of the word. When he earned Iron Mountaineer honors last spring for his work in the weight room, he became the first player in school history to do so three times.
He's played for teams that have averaged almost nine wins a year and won a BCS bowl game.
Yet as his final season approaches with the beginning of fall camp Thursday, Clarke has a bad taste in his mouth, and he wants to rid himself of it.
"We have been working hard,'' Clarke said. "But seeing how bad last season went for us defensively, everyone knows how bad it was, from outside to inside the program, and I don't want to repeat that. I don't want to go out that way.''
Indeed, as fall camp began amid so many questions about personnel at almost every position, the one that overrides all others concerns the defense for which Clarke plays. As last season proved, no matter what Dana Holgorsen manages to coax out of a rebuilt offense, it won't matter if the defense is as bad as it was in 2012.
There are signs of hope, of course. There always are. This year it comes in the form of a new defensive coordinator, Keith Patterson, and a year spent adjusting to life in the offensive-minded Big 12.
No matter the scheme, though, last season's performance begs the question of whether the Mountaineers just weren't very good. It's easy to say that schematically the defense was a failure, but at some point isn't it also fair to question those who were executing it?
Maybe they just were not that good.
"That never crossed my mind,'' Clarke said. "It's Division I football. Everyone is good. If everyone had handled their jobs we would have been better. But there were times when we weren't all there, all 11 guys, and it showed.''
Fixing that is the responsibility of Patterson and his rebuilt staff. They can't be certain that everyone will handle his responsibilities on every play - no coach can - but after last year's debacle perhaps the first priority is to make sure they find 11 guys committed to doing that.
It's a philosophy that has been driven into Clarke and the rest of the defenders from the end of last season - don't worry about the big picture, worry about your job and everything else will take care of itself.
"Most of the defensive problems last year we brought on ourselves," Clarke said. "We beat ourselves more than teams beat us. That's nothing against the teams that did well against us, but I believe with better preparation and more urgency to get to the ball and more urgency to get the calls - know your assignments and things like that - I believe that can definitely help us a lot."
The scheme, though, still has to be considered in West Virginia's failures a year ago.
"Coach Patterson has incorporated a lot more of an attacking style," Clarke said. "We should be attacking more out of our 3-4 defense instead of the rush-three, drop-eight zone that we were playing. He's trying to bring more pressure from the front seven, whether it's four guys, five guys, no matter how many guys we're bringing. Just try and bring more pressure on the quarterback and make the pocket close more.
"The good thing about it is as a defensive player it gives you a lot of opportunities to attempt to make plays. I feel like that should be the main goal of every defensive player. The Big 12 is such an offensive-oriented conference, especially with passing plays, so it gives us a chance to get a lot of sacks and interceptions."
There doesn't seem to be much faith that the Mountaineers can turn things around on defense. In the Big 12's annual media poll, West Virginia was picked eighth out of 10 teams. Given Holgorsen's reputation for building offenses, that has to mean only one thing - that the defense just has too many question marks.
Fine, Clarke says. Think that way.
"We're picked to finish eighth and that's helping us out because we're the only guys that think we're going to be good,'' he said. "We actually believe we're going to be good.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.