MORGANTOWN — There are many members of West Virginia University’s football team looking to prove themselves this season.
Will Grier wants to prove he’s a high-first-round NFL draft pick. Receivers David Sills and Gary Jennings, as well as tackle Yodny Cajuste, are looking to bolster their draft status.
Yet there’s absolutely no one that seems more determined to stand tall as Tony Gibson.
In his hometown of Van, they’d simply call it a matter of pride.
See, not much went well for the Mountaineer defensive coordinator last season.
“Last year was miserable,” he said. “I didn’t have fun at all. There was never a fun moment during that season — win or lose.”
His defense allowed an average of 445.5 yards a game, which ranked 106th of 129 FBS teams. You might remember the low point, when Oklahoma rolled WVU for 59 points. Gibson emerged for a memorable press conference of 16 seconds that ended with “Dana [Holgorsen] should probably fire me after that.”
Then, this summer, salt was poured into the wound via a preseason magazine. Athlon asks Big 12 coaches to anonymously dish on opposing teams. Within the scouting report, there were kind words about the WVU offense — especially quarterback Will Grier — but then there were stinging words about the 2017 Mountaineer defense.
“They weren’t good on defense last year,” said a coach. “They couldn’t rush the passer, couldn’t stop the run and had problems covering in man situations. How’s that for covering the gamut of issues? To me it was surprising because I really respect Tony Gibson and what he accomplished everywhere he has been. … They’ve been in this [Big 12] conference long enough now.”
The take ended by saying “It’s time to start playing better defense. Nothing should be surprising right now. I was shocked at the step backward they took last year.”
Indeed, WVU’s defenses haven’t been great under Gibson, but in total defense the 2017 version fell to No. 106 after being No. 66 in 2014, No. 61 in 2015 and No. 74 in 2016.
The defensive coordinator, though, has made a strong vow — to himself, first and foremost — to turn this around.
“Oh yeah,” Gibson said. “One hundred percent. Nobody likes to be [106th] in defense. And it’s easy to say you can blame this or blame that, but I take that 100 percent on my shoulders.
“I’ve told myself I’m going to do a better job coaching.”
“I’m not going to get held hostage by guys that don’t care about West Virginia football,” he said. “I’m not going to get held hostage by guys who aren’t going to play hard. I don’t care if they’ve been here five years, one year or a month.
“I’m going to play the best 11 football players. We owe that to this football program. We owe that to this state. And we owe it to each other.”
A strong defensive performance for this particular team would be an incredible shot in the arm with Grier, Sills, etc., on board. And maybe, just maybe, the team has, well, a shot at that.
“You know when you have a special group of kids,” Gibson said. “And in my six years since being back here, this is the closest I’ve ever seen. They like each other. They are doing what it takes to get better and improve our football team. That’s a positive sign. Hopefully now they’ll stick together through the good and bad and find a way to get it done.”
He said he’s seeing the defense getting better “every single day.”
But back to “Gibby,” as he’s known far and wide. He’s made a pledge to himself. He’s made a commitment. And he’s very, very serious about it.
“I’ve been hard on myself, my staff, maybe the kids,” he said. “Whatever it may be. For some, it’s not their fault. But I put the blame 100 percent on myself.”
He’s also channeled his inner Bob Huggins.
“We will get it fixed,” he said. “You guys [in the media], the fans and everybody else will see a whole different demeanor from that defense.”
Starting, it seems, with the coach.