ATLANTA — Maybe it is the time that has taken its toll on West Virginia. After all, this season-opening game against Alabama was first reported on in May 2012. That’s a lot of hours in the film room, a lot of SportsCenters, a lot of reminders that the Crimson Tide plays a signature style of football that is as pitiless as it is prosperous.
What the Mountaineers expect in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game inside the Georgia Dome Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC) is a fattening diet of flattening runs from T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, though in no particular order. And just when WVU’s defense steps forward to cheat just a little bit and get the jump on a run, it knows Alabama will pull the ball out of the belly of the running back and throw a play-action pass.
There aren’t many secrets when the Crimson Tide’s offense is involved, but there are no reservations as far as the Mountaineers are concerned.
“I’d much rather prepare for a team knowing how they’re going to line up and what they’re going to do,” WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “They’re going to line up in certain things and they don’t try to hide anything. They don’t motion a lot. They don’t shift out into an empty set and try to do different things. They are what they are and they know what they are.”
Maybe the Mountaineers are guilty of learning to love the devil they know, but they seem at peace with the pounding they know Alabama plans to inflict. This is not to say they’re without worries. Not when the game involves the No. 2-ranked team in the country and especially not in the first game of the season.
“Right now, my biggest fear is tackling those kinds of backs 40 or 50 times,” Gibson said. “I think that’s what they’re going to do, and the first game, what you always worry about is the tackling. That right there is a little concerning.”
But just a little. Not a lot.
“This is how I see it,” said WVU’s K.J. Dillon. “If I’ve done 50 snaps, he’s done 50 snaps. If I hit him 50 times, he’s taken 50 hits. Both our bodies are going to wear down. Then it’s a matter of who gives up first. I know for a fact I’m not going to give up.”
Dillon, the junior from Apopka, Fla., will handle many tasks for the Mountaineers. The spur is part linebacker, part cornerback and part safety. He will blitz, play the run and defend the pass. As the 2014 season opens with his team expected to lose by nearly four touchdowns, Dillon must be one thing above all else for the Mountaineers.
“Huge,” Gibson said. “He’s the key to our defense. A kid like him in that position is the key to making us go. He’s the guy who has to be effective at what he’s doing in that position to make us go as a defense.”
It is a chess piece for the defense and it is a necessity against an offense like Alabama’s, one that doesn’t need to be exotic to succeed, but one that can be more versatile than the reputation suggests.
The quarterbacks Dillon will blitz are different. Blake Sims, who the Mountaineers expect to be the starter, is 6-0 and 210 pounds and was a running back in 2011. WVU wouldn’t be surprised if he has some running plays Alabama hasn’t showed in the past. Jacob Coker is 6-5 and 230 pounds, and though he’s more of a passer, he can move too.
Yeldon (6-fooot-2, 220 pounds) and Henry (6-3, 240) are bigger backs and Drake (6-1, 200) is more of a speedster, but Yeldon and Drake are expected to be receivers more in new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s offense. In addition to angling inside or outside to stop the run, Dillon can expect to deal with them coming out of the backfield or maybe even lined up as a receiver.
One tight end is 6-7, 260-pound Brian Vogler, who has just 11 receptions in 35 games. The other is 6-6, 240-pound O.J. Howard, who plays and runs like a receiver and has collected preseason all-SEC and All-America accolades. One or both could be attached to the line of scrimmage or positioned as slot receivers or possibly even as wide receivers.
Dillon could be responsible for either scenario, and that’s a tricky proposition when you consider the slot receiver he figures to encounter most is 5-11, 185-pound Christion Jones.
“A little bit of everything, but my freshman year I had to guard a guy named Tavon Austin, if you’ve ever heard of him,” the 6-1, 210-pound Dillon said. “He gave me a lot of good work. Anybody I see now, I think I can step up to that challenge.”
This will be a challenge, if only for the way WVU’s defensive style, which is used to Big 12 track meets, matches up with Alabama’s offensive style, which prefers the straight ahead more than the spread.
“Is this the ideal game for a 210-pound outside linebacker type of kid?” Gibson said. “We’ll see.”
It might be. It might not be. But this is the way it has to be for the Mountaineers. They have primed Dillon for this role and for this occasion. He’s been reminded of the way Terence Garvin played the position, and he remembers being Garvin’s teammate in 2012. He’s been given film of other spurs WVU has used with great results in the past and encouraged to watch and learn.
“He’s always a dog and he always gets the job done,” Dillon said. “I guess that’s what I have to do in order to keep the tradition rolling.”
In one way, being a bit undersized at the position works in his favor. He may lack the weight to overpower a pulling lineman or the muscle to stay inside a tight end looking for space, but knowing he’s at that disadvantage is actually his advantage.
“For me, the most important thing about your weight is the way you bring it,” Dillon said. “As long as you bring all you got, you’ll get them down, and you get them down my any means.”