For the most part, Dec. 26 of 2017 was a date to forget for WVU’s football team.
The weather for the Mountaineers’ Heart of Dallas Bowl appearance was miserable. There were few fans in the Cotton Bowl stands. Many of West Virginia’s key players were either injured or chose to skip the game. And, of course, Utah whipped WVU 30-14 to complete a season-ending three-game slide.
There was, however, one bright spot that dreary day for the Mountaineers.
His name was Dylan Tonkery.
While many WVU players, it seemed, were mailing in their performances, that from Tonkery was express-mailed. He had eight tackles. He had two tackles for loss. He had 1.5 sacks.
But then, a week later, Mountaineer defensive coordinator Tony Gibson delivered a surprise to the linebacker.
After starting at weak-side (or Will) linebacker the first four games of 2017 and strong-side (or Sam) the last four, he was being moved again for 2018.
“I think it was the first week back after the bowl game,” Tonkery said. “I just walked into the stadium and Gibby called me into his office. When I walked in, he told me I was playing Mike [middle linebacker]. That was about it. He said he was moving me to Mike.”
“I feel comfortable at all positions,” Tonkery said. “I like Sam and Mike more than I like Will. But we’ll see how it goes. Whatever [Gibson] says, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The time since the bowl game has certainly been interesting for Tonkery. First, there was the move. Then, when projected Sam starter Quondarius Qualls went down, there was speculation Tonkery would move back there. Yet, so far anyway, Gibson has indicated junior college transfer Charlie Benton will start at Sam if Qualls can’t recover from an ACL injury.
So middle linebacker it is for Tonkery, at least for the moment.
“I’m getting blocked a lot more,” Tonkery said of the position. “That’s pretty much the difference. I don’t have as much responsibility when it comes to pass coverage. Not a lot of people get into the middle of the field as much as they do the outside.
“You’ve just got to run through your gap. The coaches preach it every day. Run through your gap; run through your gap. That’s pretty much all you’ve got to do.”
Tonkery, listed at 6-foot, 225 pounds, said he’d like to add another five pounds.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot,” said the redshirt sophomore, “but it gives you more to come downhill with.”
“It’s all about putting on the proper weight,” said linebacker coach Mark Scott. “You want to change the body composition to get more lean muscle mass … Whoever’s in the middle, he’s going to have to take on more than the outside guys. He’s taking on guards. He’s got 320-something-pound tackles climbing up to him every single snap in the run.
“As much weight as that guy can put on – without losing any quickness or athleticism – is going to help him take on and defeat those blocks.”
Position changes. Weight changes. It’s been quite a two-year ride since Tonkery left Bridgeport High in Harrison County as a two-time first-team All-Class AA selection for Power 5 football.
“When I first got here, everything felt like it was going 100 miles per hour,” Tonkery said. “You think you’re supposed to sprint everywhere just to get to your gaps. But you use your eyes to play how you’re supposed to play and see everything. When I first got in there versus Virginia Tech, everything was moving pretty fast. Once you’re in there a few series, you get used to it.”
“On the mental side of things, [Tonkery] is a very smart kid,” Scott said. “He played both Sam and Will for us last year. So he knows the defense front-to-back, back-to-front. He really knows the responsibility of all three linebackers, which is what you know out of that Mike linebacker.
“There’s been a slight learning curve in terms of being inside,” he added. “There are more moving parts you have to see and react to. He’s a guy that doesn’t get too high or too worked up though. The game’s starting to slow down for him. He’s being able to identify things quicker and react quicker, which is allowing him to play more physical.
“These last few practices you can tell he’s starting to feel more comfortable.”