Injuries taking toll on WVU defense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Dana Holgorsen tried his best a few times Tuesday to put things in perspective where his West Virginia football team stands in terms of injuries.
"We're pretty beat up,'' Holgorsen said during his weekly press conference. "But it's game 11. Everybody's beat up.''
"We're not going to use it as an excuse,'' he said.
Still, what is happening - and has happened since before the season even began - on the injury front is taking a huge toll on the Mountaineers, particularly the team's defense.
Linebackers Jared Barber and K.J. Dillon - Barber is the team's second-leading tackler and Dillon one of the defense's most versatile parts - are the latest Mountaineers to be scratched for the season. Barber will have surgery for a torn ACL suffered in last week's overtime loss to Texas and be out at least six months. Dillon reacted badly to dehydration he suffered that same night, spent several days in a hospital intensive care unit and won't play again this season, Holgorsen said.
"And then there are 20 other people on this [injury] list that are day-to-day,'' Holgorsen said. "We'll just have to go out there and practice and see how they do.''
As West Virginia (4-6, 2-5 Big 12) prepares for a Saturday game at Kansas (2-7, 0-6), the end of the regular season can't come soon enough for the Mountaineers, at least from an injury point of view.
The loss of Barber and Dillon brings to eight the number of defensive players who have been lost for the season, six of them linebackers. The others are linebackers Doug Rigg (at least for the regular season), Dozie Ezemma, Shaq Petteway and Wes Tonkery, along with cornerback Nana Kyeremeh and lineman Christian Brown. All were starters or at least on the two-deep.
That number doesn't include at least eight other defenders who have missed games (or at least were very limited) because of injuries - Dontrill Hyman, Nick Kwiatkoski, Daryl Worley, Isaiah Bruce, Jewone Snow, Brandon Napoleon, Ricky Rumph and Terrell Chestnut.
Of those 16 players, nine have started games this season or earlier in their careers and all were - or still are - being counted on to play.
How do the Mountaineers replace them? Well, usually by plugging in backups, although many of the former backups are now starters. Holgorsen said it's too late to burn any more redshirts, as he did in the eighth week of the season when he began playing freshman Darrien Howard at nose guard.
"No, it's backup guys like Tyler Anderson. It's backup guys like Jewone Snow,'' Holgorsen said. "Eric Kinsey needs to come on. Darrien Howard needs to take more snaps. Noble [Nwachukwu] needs to take more snaps.
"We've got bodies. Are they seasoned vets? No, but you've got to line 'em up and you've got to go play.''
The problem at linebacker is obviously of particular concern. With both Barber and Rigg out it eliminates the two most experienced inside linebackers, the heart of the defense. Anderson, who was a combination outside linebacker and fourth defensive lineman, can play inside now, along with Snow, who has missed most of the past two seasons with injuries but has been playing special teams of late. It was Snow who blocked Texas' first punt last week.
Kwiatkoski is the team's second-leading active tackler and redshirt freshman Sean Walters can play there.
"That gives you four [inside] linebackers to play with,'' Holgorsen said. "Is it at the level you'd get with Barber and Rigg? No. They don't have the experience. But they need to take advantage of this opportunity and play ball.''
It's not just the injured players who are affected by the injuries, though. With so many players sidelined, depth has become a big issue. Even those who aren't hurt are being asked to play more snaps.
"Depth is a problem. The snaps are starting to pile up,'' Holgorsen said, citing veteran starters like safeties Karl Joseph and Darwin Cook and nose guard Shaq Rowell, who aren't getting many breaks. "The snaps are adding up. We just have to be smart with how we approach the week. We can't go out there and run 40 plays against each other on Tuesday and Wednesday like we've been able to do in the past. We have to be a little bit smarter about our approach and get them to Saturday.
"Luckily those guys have a lot of experience, so we don't need a lot of practice snaps. We just have to get them to the game and then hope they remain healthy once we're in the game."
The significance of the loss of Barber and Dillon is hard to overstate. Dillon had seemed to fill in everywhere, from safety and nickel back earlier in the season and then as a starting linebacker of late. Barber had started the last seven games and was tied for the team lead in tackles with Cook.
"I think [Barber] had another 14 tackles on Saturday and he was playing at an extremely high level,'' Holgorsen said. "He's been one of our team leaders on defense.''
And so against Kansas this week and Iowa State two weekends later, as West Virginia tries to win two games and salvage bowl eligibility, it will have to be with a lot of young players in increasingly more demanding roles, if not as starters then as reserves.
"We've just got to get guys like Marvin Gross and Jeremy Tyler and Darrien Howard [ready to play more],'' Holgorsen said. "Daryl Worley's getting more and more snaps. He played a whale of a game [against Texas]. He played 90-some snaps after coming off of an injury.
"It's their time. You've got to get guys like Ricky Rumph and Brandon Napoleon - who didn't play very much in this past game because they had a little nick here or there - if they're not hurt they need to get out there and play through it. But it's hard for young guys to do that. Daryl Worley did it. Those other guys need to do it, as well.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.