MORGANTOWN -- There were small changes to make with personnel and larger changes to make to the culture that’s come to define West Virginia’s defense the previous two years as Tony Gibson took over this spring as the fourth coordinator in four seasons.
What was arguably the greatest adjustment might also have been the best achievement, according to Gibson.
“I’m really happy with the defensive staff and the way we taught the kids,” he said. “We got a lot accomplished.”
There are five assistant coaches on the defensive staff. Four of them are new to the team or new to their roles, beginning with Gibson, who had been the safeties coach last season. He’s now coaching the linebackers so he can have a better feel for the entire defense by coaching in the middle of it. Gibson is joined there by Damon Cogdell, a former WVU linebacker who came to the staff in January after many successful seasons as the head coach at Miramar (Fla.) High School.
Gibson filled the safety spot with Joe DeForest, who was the defensive coordinator and safeties coach in 2012, but was in charge of only the special teams last season. Tom Bradley was hired to coach the defensive line to end a two-year period away from coaching after spending 35 seasons at Penn State.
The only coach with the same business card is Brian Mitchell, who can probably claim the most impressive defender from the spring in sophomore Daryl Worley, who coach Dana Holgorsen said had a “phenomenal, phenomenal spring.”
That condition was certainly aided by the familiarity between coach and player.
“Daryl Worley is as good as anybody I’ve ever had at this age,” said Gibson, who has coached the position through the years. “Coach Mitchell’s done a great job coaching him and getting his technique right. Back when we talked at the beginning of the spring, our goal was to keep him at one spot and let him grow at that position, and they’ve done a tremendous job.”
Gibson grouped Worley among the leaders of the defense that lost to graduation the bodies, production and voices of defensive linemen Will Clarke and Shaq Rowell. It’s the back end of the defense that’s at the front of the movement to improve the results from the past two seasons.
“Our athleticism in the secondary is not even close (to what it had been),” Holgorsen said. “It’s not even close.”
Worley was good enough to play every spot in the secondary as a freshman. Senior Ishmael Banks started at cornerback last season and junior safety Karl Joseph has started the past two seasons and has a team-high 172 tackles in that time. Junior K.J. Dillon has been planted at the outside linebacker/safety spot and charged with covering, blitzing and playing the run.
WVU lost safety Darwin Cook to graduation, but sophomore Jeremy Tyler and junior Ricky Rumph are ready to replace him while sophomore Jarrod Harper has impressed behind Joseph.
“The biggest different I can see is in the secondary,” Holgorsen said. “K.J. Dillon, Karl Joseph and those guys are extremely disruptive off the edge.”
The situations are different on the defensive line and at linebacker, where changes on the roster and beneath the headsets have required and might still need more time. Gibson and Bradley have made changes to the way defensive linemen play so that they can make life easier on the players behind them.
The linebackers are included in that oncoming wave of players, and though it might be the deepest position on the team -- Nick Kwiatkoski, Brandon Golson and Isaiah Bruce started together last season -- it’s going to welcome Wes Tonkery and Jared Barber back from injuries over the summer. Junior college transfer Edward Muldrow and redshirt freshman Al-Rasheed Benton made the most of vacated playing time in the spring.
“I’m really happy with the progress of the defensive line,” Holgorsen said. “Those guys are learning how to be unselfish and hold their gaps for guys on the second level, where there are so many guys with experience.”
As usual, help will arrive over the summer, but it might give the secondary even more ammunition. Junior college transfer Jaylon Myers and freshmen Dravon Henry, arguably WVU’s top recruit, and Daejuan Funderburk were proclaimed on signing day in February to be good enough to play right away, while Xavier Preston has a chance to help at linebacker.
After this spring, though, it sure seems it won’t be easy for any of them.
“We want to find our best 11 and then we want to find the next 11,” Gibson said. “Right now, I think we’ve got a pretty good grasp on that. Some (new players) are going to come in and they’re going to be asked to step in and play right away in certain positions and in certain roles, and we’ll see how that goes.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.