MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There are so many things West Virginia’s football program cannot hide from as the start of preseason practice Thursday signals the beginning of another season, one that has the attention of a state decidedly desperate for the sort of superior experience promised upon changing conferences.
Many of the issues are menacing, beginning with the schedule. The man leading the Mountaineers into it in 30 days from now, coach Dana Holgorsen, called it “one of the hardest, if not the hardest” in the country. It begins, of course, with Alabama, and then features 2013 FCS finalist Towson, a Maryland team that shut out WVU last September and then preseason conference favorite Oklahoma, the same Sooners team that beat the Crimson Tide by two touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl six months ago.
All of that happens before the Mountaineers can catch their breath with the benefit of an open week, though there is some sort of serendipity since the Sooners have the same scheduling situation — and it should be mentioned they play Louisiana Tech, Tulsa and Tennessee before WVU.
The case could also be made that this is the least-anticipated season in a decade and maybe longer. Season ticket sales are the lowest since 2004 and WVU was picked eighth in the Big 12 preseason poll. WVU was lower than fourth once and never worse than sixth in the Big East’s preseason predictions from 2002-11. Of course, WVU was also predicted eighth last season, but there was something still shiny and new about the Big 12, and the league had not yet proven capable of bringing the program to its knees.
The inescapable truth is WVU is 6-12 in Big 12 play and has lost 14 of 20 games overall.
Having said all of that, some of the things the Mountaineers just cannot avoid are also good. After three seasons trying to get there, the roster is replenished, and all across the depth chart are players with experience in starting spots backed up by other players with experience. On both sides of the ball, players the Mountaineers were once made to rely on have either developed or been moved aside by an infusion of talent.
There are a handful of quarterbacks and a swarm of running backs, and injuries at both spots have dented Holgorsen’s best designs each of the past two seasons. The Mountaineers might only start one or two players who weren’t with the team in the spring, a significant difference from last season, when the Mountaineers leaned on starters who hit campus over the summer.
“The style of ball that exists in the Big 12, although it’s a very exciting style of play, you’re going to end up taking more snaps,” Holgorsen said. “So when guys get tired, you better be able to replace those guys with guys that go in and perform at a very high level. I think we’re at that point right now. We have 55 guys on our team that have played Big 12 football. So that just means that there are guys that have played that are experienced and should continue to get better each and every year.”
And then there’s the notion that a proud program with a winning tradition and without consecutive losing seasons since 1978-79 is due for a turnaround. Three of the 14 losses the past two seasons were in overtime, one when a winning two-point conversion pass appeared to hit the ground in the end zone. One regulation loss to Oklahoma came on a fourth-down touchdown pass with seconds remaining and another came on the road on a day the special teams gave the Sooners 10 points and the defense allowed a pair of field-goal drives in a 16-7 loss. Just last season, WVU lost three games when it had a fourth quarter lead and one when it had a third quarter lead.
Ever since Texas sailed a snap over the quarterback’s head on WVU’s goal line and then missed a field goal to key WVU’s road win in 2012 and the 5-0 start and top-five national ranking, very few breaks have gone the Mountaineers’ way. Iowa State lost a fumble going into WVU’s end zone late in a Cyclones’ home loss in 2013 and TCU did the same at home to help the Mountaineers last season, but that’s about it. There are others, but not many and not ones big enough to assist, never mind overcome, WVU’s other issues.
Lording over all of that is the obvious, the greatest separator standing between the struggles WVU has experienced the past two seasons and the successes it still seeks. The Mountaineers have been betrayed by bad defense. Curing that is the top priority as preseason camp gets started.
To do so, Holgorsen has a new defensive coordinator, the fourth in his four seasons. This time, it’s Tony Gibson, who’s never had the position at the Football Bowl Subdivision level and who has never coached linebackers at any level in his career. It’s not a startling statement to say the dialogue of the season will be dictated by the job Gibson does with his defense.
“You better be able to improve defensively and stop some people,” Holgorsen said, “if you want to win some games.”
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To change the fate of the Mountaineers, Gibson is making changes amid the changes happening around him.
Being elevated to coordinator for the first time is a nuance and not a negative, something he’s wanted and ultimately earned after 14 years at three FBS schools. Being in control of the linebackers after working with cornerbacks and safeties his entire career is more benefit than bane.
“One thing that I figured out after spring ball and going through the summer is that as long as I can help it, I’ll never go back to coaching the secondary after coaching linebackers,” Gibson said. “I really like it. You’re in the heat of it and you get a feel for both sides of it with the run and the pass and how everything works in the front and in the back end. I think being the coordinator, you have to be there. I’m not sure you can do it from the secondary.”
Gibson is joined in the middle of it all with fellow first-timer Damon Cogdell, the former WVU linebacker and famed coach of Florida’s Miramar High, but also beginning his first season as a college coach. Behind them is Joe DeForest, who is back with the safeties, which is where he started as the coordinator in 2012 before he was demoted to special teams late that season, when he was replaced by then-linebackers coach Keith Patterson, who is now the coordinator at Arizona State.
In front of them is Tom Bradley, who’s first season with WVU as the defensive line coach comes after two seasons out of the game and in the media and, more famously, 33 years at Penn State.
Gibson, perhaps more renowned for his recruiting than his coaching through the years, said Bradley was the team’s greatest offseason acquisition, which is no small designation since FCS All-American Shaquille Riddick might jump in and start at defensive end and freshman Dravon Henry was said by Holgorsen to be the favorite to start at free safety. Neither has even practiced yet.
Getting Bradley wasn’t easy, nor was it the team’s first attempt to have him join a former rival.
“The first thing Dana asked me once Keith left and we talked about making me coordinator was, ‘Can you give me some names for guys you’d like to talk to?’” Gibson said. “The first guy I brought up was Tom.”
Gibson first admired Bradley from a distance and then enjoyed a growing friendship as they crossed paths on the recruiting circuit. Holgorsen had reason to be suspicious because, Gibson said, WVU had tried before to hire Bradley, but Gibson gave Holgorsen reason to believe the head coach and athletic director Oliver Luck could finish a conversation Gibson would start.
“Dana had known about him and had talked to him before, but then we all got together a couple times and were on the phone with him and selling him on West Virginia and what it means, what he can bring, how valuable we thought he was and those kinds of things, and I think he started to give it some serious consideration,” Gibson said. “From there, Dana and Oliver both did a great job getting the thing done.”
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The statistics and the national rankings suggest otherwise, but the Mountaineers are not a lost cause on defense. True, the statistics and national rankings are near the bottom of the FBS and, yes, the 2012 version was the worst in school history and last season’s defense was only marginally better.
But it’s not fair to say WVU wasn’t improving last season. After five games and an upset at home against Oklahoma State in which the defense allowed 2.8 yards per rush on 40 attempts, stopped 14 of 20 third downs, forced 10 punts and five three-and-outs, scored on an interception return and set up a field goal with a fumble recovery, the Mountaineers seemed to have a solid defense under Patterson’s watch. WVU was ranked No. 37 in total defense, No. 31 in passing defense and No. 36 in scoring defense.
Then Baylor happened.
Confidence was destroyed and then depth endured a similar fate with a rash of injuries. The bottom fell out and the Mountaineers sunk toward the bottom of the nation again.
Gibson has a starting point for fixing that.
“I don’t like giving up big plays, and obviously nobody does, but that’s been the problem here the last couple of years,” he said. “It’s crazy to look at it, but if we can limit the number of big plays, we’re going to be right back in the thick of it again.”
In the past two seasons WVU has allowed 84 passing plays of at least 25 yards and 32 running plays of at least 20 yards. Both are the highest totals in the Big 12.
Gibson believes he can help by enabling his players to line up faster and make sure they’re in the right play. WVU will have left and right cornerbacks instead of field and boundary cornerbacks. No longer will a field cornerback have to hustle to the wide side of the field between snaps, unless WVU decides one game to lock a cornerback on a specific receiver wherever he goes.
That’s one of a few positional changes that haven’t received much attention. WVU will use left and right defensive ends. Brandon Golson, who started all 12 games at Buck linebacker last season and had seven tackles for a loss and four sacks. He’s now a Will linebacker, which is an outside position opposite the Sam linebacker. The Will plays the weakside of the formation and the Sam plays the strong side and they can easily flip in a small space before a snap. Between them in the box is the Mike, or middle, linebacker.
The outside has changed without the Buck and with the positioning of the hybrid defensive back/linebacker Spur on the open side and a Bandit safety on the other side. They’re basically the same. Behind them is a free safety keeping a top on things, though the Spur and Bandit have to be able to drop and cover.
It all sounds similar to the 3-3-5 odd stack Gibson taught here with former defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. One of Casteel’s better performers through the years was Anthony Leonard, a linebacker from 2007-10. To little fanfare, though for obvious benefit, Leonard was hired in the offseason as a defensive graduate assistant. He’d been the defensive line coach at West Virginia Wesleyan, where Gibson’s son, Cody, in an offensive lineman.
“We watch cuts-ups with the players and Anthony is the one in the cut-ups,” Gibson said. “The kids see him doing it up there and understand he knows what he’s doing when he’s talking to them.”
What will further expedite the learning and ideally improve the performance is lightening the responsibilities. Gibson pictures an odd front with multiple looks and coverages, but he promised a defense that’s less complicated and easier to process.
“We’re not going run 15 different coverages and 15 different blitzes and 15 different fronts,” he said. “I think there’s a point where you do too much and you can never get good at anything. So that’s my goal: Let’s keep it simple, but not so simple that everyone we’re playing understands it. It’ll let them play faster and play at a high level.”