MORGANTOWN — When West Virginia’s football team gathered for preseason camp just over three weeks ago, Tony Gibson was fairly giddy over the group of linebackers he was about to begin coaching.
It wasn’t so much the quality that had Gibson excited — although he thought that was pretty good, too — as much as it was the sheer numbers.
“The biggest problem we have right now is we’re repping about 17 or 18 linebackers, if you can call that a problem,’’ Gibson said at the time. “What did we finish last year with, six or seven maybe? I feel really good about it. We’ve got a lot of depth.’’
Three weeks in and one week before next Saturday’s opener against Alabama in Atlanta, though, that number can’t remain at 17 or 18 or even 10, really. Sure, it would be nice to have that many ready to play, but it’s entirely impractical. There’s just not enough practice time in a day to keep that many sharp.
So along the way, Gibson has cut the number significantly. Just don’t ask him the particulars about a concrete depth chart because that’s still a tricky assessment.
“You give me one,’’ Gibson said when asked what his depth chart at the position looks like.
Of course, the great thing about having all those linebackers is there’s still room for all of them to play. Linebacker and safety types are generally the ones who fill the special teams because they’re the ones who can best play in the open field, so it’s quite possible that when West Virginia puts together its travel roster for the Alabama game, all or most of them will be on it.
Gibson thinks he’s pretty much figured out which of them will actually play linebacker, too. It’s a deep list.
In the middle, Nick Kwiatkoski will be backed up by Al-Rasheed Benton. Brandon Golson will play at one of the outside spots, the Will, along with Edward Muldrow. At the other outside spot, the Sam, are Isaiah Bruce and Wes Tonkery.
“Those six guys, right now, they’re our top linebackers,’’ Gibson said. “Sean Walters and Hodari Christian will play a little bit, but those six are the guys you’ll see rolling in and out.
“I can’t tell you who’s going to start right now, but they’re all going to play. I consider all six of those guys starters, I really do.’’
It’s actually a pretty good mix of experience and youth, of power and quickness.
The veterans are the three guys who seem most likely to start — Kwiatkowski, Golson and Bruce. Kwiatkoski is a redshirt junior who led the team in tackles last season, Bruce is another fourth-year junior who was second on the team in tackles two years ago, and Golson is a senior who made a ton of big plays in his first year out of junior college, including a team-best five forced fumbles.
Muldow and Benson are the newcomers, the former from junior college and the latter a redshirt freshman. Golson and Muldrow are the quickest of the bunch, playing on the weak side with a chance to rush opposing quarterbacks.
And then there is Tonkery. The fifth-year senior from Bridgeport may have had the best camp of any of the linebackers.
“He really did. He’s impressed me a bunch,’’ Gibson said. “Every day he’s getting better and better. He’s back in the swing of it now.’’
Tonkery missed the second half of last season with an injured thumb and hadn’t been healthy even before that, what with a shoulder that kept popping out. Tonkery isn’t going to light up tackles with his pass rushing skills or perhaps even clamp down on quicker inside receivers in pass coverage.
But he is going to be a tough guy to move and he’s also not going to make mistakes.
“He’s just so smart,’’ Gibson said. “He understands where we need him, how to fit. He struggles a little bit sometimes in some pass coverage, but that will come.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1