MORGANTOWN — Right off the bat Thursday, Dana Holgorsen used what will be his final formal media availability until West Virginia's opening week of the season to gives kudos to his team's defense.He used words like — among others — happy and satisfying. He fairly raved.Of course, given that West Virginia's defensive performance in 2012 was anything but happy or satisfying, his comments begged a question.Is he happy with the defense in relation to most defenses, or is he merely enjoying it in relation to last year's disaster? If it's the latter, there could still be a long way to go.
"Yeah, it could be in relation to where we were last year,'' Holgorsen said. "We're definitely way ahead of where we were last year.''Last year, though, brought the worst defensive performance in school history. Even an offense that set records almost weekly couldn't make up for a defense that set them on the other end. So even if the defense is improved, it might not be good enough.And Holgorsen knows that. He admits it. It's just so hard to gauge for so many reasons, not the least of which is that this year's defense isn't facing the same challenges in practice that were afforded last year's group. It might be a case of WVU's offense, with its three main cogs — quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey — in the NFL and only a handful of other veterans returning, isn't challenging this year's defense.Again, it's just hard to gauge."We're about a lot of the same bodies, so we ought to be ahead of where we were last year,'' Holgorsen said. "It's either that or it's in relation to where we are offensively, which is not where we were last year. That's going to be obvious that offensively we're not where we were last year at this point."That doesn't mean we can't be better than last year at the end of the season. It's just going to take some time whenever you're breaking in as many new bodies as we're breaking in.''The defense has gone through a transition since the end of last season that includes changes that may or may not seem major. The coordinator, of course, was changed, with Keith Patterson replacing Joe DeForest, but both were on the staff last season. The alignments are essentially the same, although the philosophies might be different.All of the assistant coaches coaching the secondary under Patterson are new — Tony Gibson with the safeties and Brian Mitchell with the cornerbacks — but the front seven is still in the charge of Patterson and defensive line coach Erik Slaughter.And, as Holgorsen said, the bodies are basically the same as last year. Virtually everyone currently in the two-deep, save for junior college linebacker Brandon Golson, was in the program last season, although some played only as backups or sat out the year injured or redshirting.In other words, it remains to be seen if what amounts to small changes — as opposed to a vastly different scheme and a hoard of new faces — will make a big impact."It's the same scheme. There's going to be some small changes that Keith's going to like to do a little bit different than what Joe liked to do, but it's relatively the same scheme,'' Holgorsen said. "It's just like us offensively. We can do some things differently this year than we did last year that are going to be small differences that you're really not going to be able to tell the difference from the stands.''
Same with the players. There are enough experienced bodies on defense that WVU could put a starting group on the field in which everyone has at least some starting experience. That's not likely, but the point is there even will be backups who have started games in the past."I'd like to think that these guys are just a year more comfortable in what we're asking them to do,'' Holgorsen said. "For instance, [sophomore safety] Karl [Joseph] and [senior safety] Darwin [Cook], two experienced guys at the safeties, those guys need to disguise things. They can't give away what they're going to be doing or offenses [WVU's offense in practice and opponents later on] will be able to see it and get in better plays and all the rest.''With all that experience, Holgorsen hopes his two safeties, and perhaps others, will be able to disguise defenses better and "they're going to learn how to do things probably sneakier and a little bit different.''The bottom line, though, is until the defense faces an actual opponent, all of this — including Holgorsen's optimism — is speculation."I hope — and you don't know this until you actually start playing — I hope defensively we're ahead of where we were last year based on coaching and experience and schemes and blah, blah, blah,'' Holgorsen said. "I hope it's not because we're just inadequate on offense. But again, how are you going to know until you actually spot it up and start playing?''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.