MORGANTOWN — If you want to know what WVU’s defense most needs to improve on this season, insert Jon Gruden voice here for effect.
It needs a pass rush, man.
It’s nothing new. Not since 2011, when the Mountaineers finished 29th nationally, averaging 2.31 sacks per game, has the team had a respectable pass rush.
West Virginia’s change in conferences didn’t help in that respect. But since that 10-3 2011 season, WVU has fallen to 75th nationally in sacks in 2012 and 107th last season. The records, as fans know all too well, have fallen as well.
This year, Mountaineer coach Dana Holgorsen seems to like his defensive depth, which includes that of the line. Yet it bears watching to see if that line can give WVU — and, by extension, its fans — a rush.
As recently as Friday, nose tackle Kyle Rose was anything but encouraged by his side of the ball.
“It’s winding down and we really need to step up as a defense,” Rose said after a less-than-stellar day of practice. “We need to find our identity. We need to get back to what we were doing at the beginning of camp: flying to the ball. It’s not like we’re freaking out. But it’s approaching. The game is here. We need to be where we need to be.”
Especially with Alabama looming. The Crimson Tide offensive line allowed a combined 11 sacks in its opener against Virginia Tech and in its Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. But in between it allowed just six. Also, Alabama’s line pushed for an average of 205.6 rushing yards last season.
Rose seemed to believe WVU’s players just needed to focus.
“We want to be the greatest defense in the Big 12,” he said. “When we do things that don’t allow us to be that, I get flustered. But I need to remind myself and my teammates it’s a process. It’s not just one practice.”
Apparently WVU’s coaches are happy it is indeed a process. There has been much experimentation. On Saturday, Dontrill Hyman was at one end with newcomer Shaq Riddick backing him up. Rose, 6-foot-4, 293 pounds, was at nose with Christian Brown, 6-3, 304 pounds, behind him. (That’s news.) Darrien Howard is also there. Meanwhile, Noble Nwachukwu was at the other end with Eric Kinsey behind him.
Of course, Riddick, the transfer from Gardner-Webb, is the most intriguing lineman.
“Shaq is a very explosive pass rusher, which we definitely need,” Rose said. “He can be a dominant force for sure at times. He’s kind of a natural leader, too. He doesn’t say much, but when he does you really want to listen and see what he has to say. He’s done a good job for us. He can be a third-down guy; he can be a first-down guy. He has all the capabilities.”
Rose also likes his current backup, Brown, who has moved a bunch and is coming off a foot injury suffered last season.
“He’s the same way [as Riddick], just bigger,” Rose said. “Christian is a monster. When he wants to be, he’s quick off the ball. He’s big and fast. He just looks like a football player. He can play wherever Coach needs him: nose or end. He can play inside. He’s big enough and strong enough to play the double teams and let the linebackers scrape over top and make plays.”
Nwachukwu has been a camp hit with his preseason play.
“Noble is an explosive guy off the edge,” Rose said. “He can get a good pass rush and stop the run pretty well.”
Rose has moved from end to nose. (“The switch has been good for me,” he said. “I like playing inside. I’m not as fast off the edge. That works for our guys who can get a pass rush off the edge.”) It seems all the linemen have moved in an attempt to produce a workable, fitted puzzle. Riddick, in fact, might be the closest thing to a star — and he wasn’t a starter on Saturday.
“That’s the cool thing about our group,” Rose said. “We’re all no-name kind of guys. I like it like that. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We don’t have Shaq [Rowell] and Will [Clarke]. We are all just kind of dogs. We all just want a piece of the pie.
“That’s what makes our defensive line hungry. We have two coaches. One [Tom Bradley] who has been around the game a long time and one [Damon Cogdell] who came up from Miramar [Fla.] High School. [Cogdell is] a determined coach who wants to coach as hard as he can. It all makes our line special and unique. We’re just a bunch of no-name guys who just want a piece of the pie.”
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Sometime you wonder if WVU backup quarterback Paul Millard is having any fun. He’s played in 18 games for his team, but started just three. He’s been challenged this season, his final, to even be the backup to Clint Trickett.
And then he’s asked about wearing gloves during a practice.
“Micro limb injury,” he says. “It’s just a precaution.”
After, he cracks a smile.
“That’s BS,” he says. “We were just having a good time.”
It’s good to hear that of Millard. A religious man, a married man, Millard has stayed the course, even after Trickett was brought in, even after freshman William Crest has grabbed headlines.
Millard probably knows Holgorsen’s offense better than anyone. Of Trickett?
“He’s come a long way as a person and player,” Millard said. “It will be exciting to get to the Georgia Dome on the 30th.”
He said even more about Crest.
“He’s got a lot of talent, a lot of potential,” Millard said. “He’s a good-looking kid. He’s a big kid. I still don’t look like he does. I think he has a lot of learning to do over the next few years, but the sky is the limit for him.”
There is much for Crest to learn, according to Millard.
“He needs to slow it down and think things through before the ball is snapped,” Millard said. “It’s important to know where everyone is going to be. If you don’t know where you should be looking it’s probably not going to be a very good play. Once he slows it down and goes through the offense, he’ll be all right.”
As long as he avoids micro limb injuries, that is.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.