WVU FOOTBALL: Tonkery shines in preseason camp

Iowa State tight end Ernst Brun Jr., left, runs the ball as West Virginia linebacker’s Nick Kwiatkoski, third from top left, and Wes Tonkery (37) make the tackle during during a 2012 game in Ames, Iowa.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The 2013 season was something of a mystery for Wes Tonkery.

Like, how did he play the first five games of the season with a shoulder that kept popping out of its socket? It had happened first to the former Bridgeport High star during preseason camp last August, but he decided to play through the predicament and the pain. He figured he’s save the surgery to fix it for when the season was over.

Sure, he’d miss spring football, but if he was as good as he hoped to be during the season, he’d secure a grip of a position and wouldn’t lose standing on the sideline in the spring.

That plan changed in the sixth game when the linebacker broke his thumb.

How? Nobody knows. He’s watched the play on tape and he’s found it to be rather ordinary. He remembers the down and the pain, but the rest still escapes him.

“I made a tackle and I got up and it felt like I couldn’t move my hand,” he said. “I remember being surprised it hurt like it did.”

The thumb was broken and the hand was damaged. So much for the left arm. That concern accompanied the already in place for his shaky right shoulder. There was no way Tonkery was going to be able to protect himself so there was no way he was going to play. Thumb surgery would cost him at least six weeks, which was just about all of the rest of the regular season. The Mountaineers didn’t play in a bowl game, so once the season ended Tonkery was on an operating table again to fix the shoulder.

That made three surgeries since spring football. Tonkery had a problem with knee meniscus and needed an arthroscopic procedure after the spring game.

Put together, Tonkery was left with the biggest whodunit. What was it like to be healthy and play the game free of physical pain and mental inhibitions?

He’s solved that during his final preseason camp with the Mountaineers. The fifth-year senior, who was first-team Class AAA all-state on offense in 2008 and defense in 2009, has been perhaps the top defensive performer so far.

Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, who is also the linebackers coach, said definitively last week Tonkery had been the best on defense for the first half of camp. He hasn’t backed down since.

“It helps to hear it,” Tonkery said. “It’s a validation for the things you’ve been working on to hear that from the coaches, but I notice I’ve picked up my play this year.”

How this has all happened is almost as inexplicable as what came before it. Gibson is Tonkery’s fourth defensive coordinator and third position coach in four years. The defense itself might be more like it was during Tonkery’s redshirt and freshman seasons, but he’s now a Will linebacker. He played Spur last season, Star the year before and Bandit safety in 2011.

Missing spring football this year following shoulder surgery didn’t exactly help him rise up the depth chart, either. Yet even if Tonkery had been healthy and able to be in those 15 practices, he knew he was going to be behind Brandon Golson, only the most physical impressive player on defense.

Now, though, it’s Tonkery who is playing and holding off challengers because Golson has been restricted to limited participation in practices as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. Tonkery jumped into the void and occupied it.

“For a while, I didn’t know what my role was going to be on defense,” Tonkery said.

No longer. Practices move along quickly because the Mountaineers have so many linebackers and have to get them reps, but Tonkery doesn’t repeat drills or plays because of errors. He doesn’t get lectured on the side. When he watches film and studies what he did against the offense, he spots fewer mistakes than he did before.

“I know I’m doing well this camp,” he said. “Being older, you pick up on things faster than you do when you’re younger. Physically there’s nothing holding me back anymore.”

Tonkery, who has one start in his career back in the 2012 Orange Bowl, will likely cede the first-team spot to Golson soon, and Golson is a pass rush specialist who can stay on the field on third down.

Tonkery won’t be left without a role on defense, though.

Not now. Not after everything he went through last season and how he’s learned to approach everything ever since.

“When the game is temporarily taken from you, you get a whole new perspective on how appreciative you need be,” he said. “You understand why you’re playing. I think it helped me come back energized. Maybe having time let my body recuperate so I’d be ready to go.”

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.

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