MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - For all the talk of West Virginia's defense this preseason, one thing has been largely overlooked. That's only natural, because in some ways the growth is almost imperceptible.It's not figuratively that the Mountaineers are growing - although that is hoped for, as well, after last season's debacle - but literally.When West Virginia's defense last took the field, in December of 2012 against Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl, the average height of the 11 starters was just a shade over 6-foot-1.When the Mountaineers line up on defense the next time, a week from Saturday against William & Mary, the average of the 11 starters is more likely to stretch to about 6-foot-2.
It might not seem like much, but consider:The cornerbacks are likely to be 6-1 Travis Bell and 6-foot Ishmael Banks, with 6-2 freshman Daryl Worley in reserve. Save for Banks four times, no one who started at that position in 2012 stood more than 5-11.The safeties this year and last are the same, sub-6-footers Karl Joseph and Darwin Cook, but backups K.J. Dillon and Jarrod Harper are each 6-1.The linebackers come from essentially the same group as last year, but of the newcomers the most promising seems to be 6-3 Brandon Golson.And up front, the two mainstays are 6-7 Will Clarke and 6-4 Shaq Rowell, with 6-4 Dontrill Hyman a potential third starter or a first-in reserve. Consider that just two years ago West Virginia started a defensive line that averaged just over 6-foot-2.
It's no coincidence, either. Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is fairly enamored of height. He's like a basketball coach - which his father was - who talks about wanting great length."It's a great disrupting force,'' Patterson said. "If I'm a quarterback, the last thing I want to see are these long bodies.''Much of Patterson's desire for length is because of what college defenses are forced to defend these days, especially in the Big 12. By their very nature, spread offenses spread the field so that the gaps between players are greater. Put people in the open field and see what happens.Longer bodies, quite simply, tend to shrink those gaps, especially in the passing game.For starters, there are longer, taller pass rushers disrupting a quarterback's vision."It's almost like hidden yardage in a game,'' Patterson said. "When you have a 6-foot-6 guy impose his presence, he may never touch the quarterback. But he puts his body in a very close proximity to the quarterback and he's still having an impact. Maybe it's his vision, maybe squeezing a throwing lane, but also just knowing, 'Man, that guy's getting close. I've got to get the ball out maybe quicker than what I want to get it out.' ''
Tall pass rushers, of course, have been in vogue forever. Think of Ed "Too Tall'' Jones of the Dallas Cowboys as the trailblazer.Now, though, with spread offenses almost the norm, there's reason to have length almost everywhere. With defenses trending more toward being flexible, linebackers or even defensive linemen aren't just bottling up the run and rushing the passer, they're dropping into coverage and filling passing lanes."Everything is about trying to throw into the creases of the defense,'' Patterson said. "When you have guys that are 6-3, 6-4, 6-5 dropping into coverage, they have a wider wingspan and those creases become smaller. The creases also rise. Now the ball has to be elevated to get it to someone over in the boundary. I just think when you have bigger, longer, athletic guys, it makes the size of those windows smaller."Once you get those body types, guys who can move with some suddenness and they've got the length, they don't have to be great cover guys. It's just their presence.''WVU has had length on defense in the past, of course. Robert Sands was a 6-foot-6 safety. Terence Garvin played safety and linebacker at 6-3. And Clarke is no newcomer, having put his 6-7 frame on the defensive line the last three years.Those are just a few exceptions, though. Patterson would like to make length on defense the norm.
"If we continue to recruit the way I'd like to recruit, I like those guys up front to be 6-4, 6-5. I like those guys on the perimeter and into the boundary to be 6-4, 6-5,'' Patterson said. "No less than what Golson is, probably 6-3. It just narrows those lanes and those windows. There's something about long bodies that creates something that's imposing when a quarterback tries to throw into that.''Long bodies like that don't grow on trees, however. In fact, many taller players arrive in college as projects - lanky athletes who haven't fully developed or have spent much of their high school careers in another sport, like basketball."There are a lot of times we've got to beef them up a little bit,'' Patterson said. "So, yeah, it's a process.''It's one Patterson is more than willing to tackle, though, because of the eventual rewards."Look at Will Clarke. He obviously didn't show up at 6-foot-7 and 275 pounds,'' Patterson said of Clarke, who was actually pretty close at 6-6, 260 pounds but still needed work in the weight room. "A lot of those times they're basketball players like Dontrill or like Will, guys who maybe thought through high school that they were going to go play basketball and they were 205 pounds. But that's who I'd really like to target.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.