MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University defensive coordinator Vic Koenning is not buying any silver linings for the performances he has seen out of his Mountaineer defense in the first two games of the 2019 season.
Koenning wants the WVU defense to play the way he feels it is capable of playing, and he has not seen it yet in a narrow win against James Madison or last week in a blowout loss at Missouri.
A big part of that has been the Mountaineers’ tackling, or lack thereof. According to WVU coach Neal Brown, West Virginia missed 22 tackles in the 38-7 loss at Missouri. It’s something the coaching staff is going above and beyond to emphasize ahead of Saturday’s game at home against North Carolina State (Noon, Fox Sports 1).
“We missed 22 tackles and we practice tackling every single day — or some phase of tackling every day,” Koenning said Tuesday. “Most of the missing tackles was being at the wrong angles and not having our eyes in the right place or not using our help.
“We created one-on-one tackles, and they’ve got guys on scholarship too. In a one-on-one environment, they’re going to win some. Some of it is [Missouri quarterback] Kelly Bryant has still got that [Superman] uniform on. He just threw us around like rag dolls.”
Koenning said the defensive coaching staff attempted to simplify some things in the game plan for the West Virginia linemen and linebackers, but clearly that did not help against Missouri.
“A lot of us still don’t know what we’re trying to do with some stuff, especially in the front seven,” Koenning said. “We tried to make some adjustments going into the game to simplify some things for some of the guys and, obviously, we made a mistake with that because what we thought was simple froze them up.
“Too many guys were not doing what they’re supposed to do. We did not execute. We had our hands on Kelly Bryant five times that are inexcusable that we don’t get. We didn’t get those sacks and they scored on three of those drives.”
So how can West Virginia begin to clean up its act on defense? The first-year WVU defensive coordinator said the Mountaineers need to focus on three things, one of which was being more relentless.
“Anyone that’s ever played this game, especially in the front seven, it’s a fight,” Koenning said. “And if you’re not willing to fight and go to a place, and you hear me getting kind of inspired right here, but if you’re not willing to go to a place that’s a little bit nuts and a little bit crazy, then you’re not going to be able to play this game. We had too many guys that didn’t go to that place — nice guys, happy to be there enjoying the Golden Girls or whatever they were doing there. We’ve got to inspire our players to get to that place where they can play tough and physical within the rules 100 percent.”
Koenning also said the Mountaineers need to show more courage to make plays rather than “freeze up” when the opportunity presents itself. The third key, Koenning said, was for the players to start doing in games what they’re coached to do in practice.
“We did things in the game that I’ve never seen our guys do in practice,” Koenning said. “We have running plays coming right at defensive linemen who are popping up and running twist games that you run in pass, and there was no part of any of that that was pass. We had some guys that we have to coach them better, but we have to inspire them better. We didn’t reinvent the wheel schematically. There wasn’t anything they shouldn’t be able to execute.
“What should have been the story line was ‘West Virginia has nine sacks versus Missouri.’ That ended up not being the story line of the game. We’ve got a lot of work to do. I know our staff is rolling up our sleeves, not that we haven’t before, but we’ve got to find that fine edge that con convince these guys that they’re capable of being as good as they want to be, and that was the message to them [Monday].”
Alston out for season
Brown announced Tuesday that junior college transfer defense end Taijh Alston suffered a torn patellar tendon in the loss at Missouri. Alston had surgery on his right knee Tuesday morning and will miss the remainder of the 2019 season. That puts a dent in the depth chart, leaving WVU with just two defensive ends that have seen significant playing time this season — junior Jeffrey Pooler and Michigan graduate transer Reuben Jones. Brown already planned to open up more competition for playing time at several positions this week, and now defensive end gets added to that list.
“It puts more emphasis on the other two guys [Pooler and Jones],” Koenning said. “We don’t have the ability to juggle those guys at other positions. It’s definitely a depth issue. We’re not as deep at any positions as we need to be. We’re scrambling to find backup guys at a lot of positions, and that’s just the way it is.”
Alston was rolled up by a Missouri offensive lineman while chasing after Bryant on a play in the second quarter last week.
“It’s unfortunate for him,” Brown said. “The block on him was fine, I wouldn’t deem it a dirty play by any means. Just one of those things that happens.”
Prior to arriving at WVU, Alston began his college football career at East Carolina. While at ECU, he suffered a meniscus injury just before the start of his freshman season. He left ECU for a junior college, but used his redshirt year.
If Alston wants to attempt to get this season back on a medical redshirt, he will have to lobby for it.
“It’s a tough situation,” Pooler said. “Ever since Taijh came in he was like my little brother. He’s a young guy and we’ve been close and developing. We knew how the D-line was going to play out this year, and to see him go down again, it hurts us.”
Leddie Brown is back
Brown had a second injury update on Tuesday. This one, however, was about a player returning to the lineup.
Sophomore Leddie Brown missed the first two West Virginia games this season with an injury to his right ankle, but Neal Brown said the running back was expected to return to practice Tuesday at full strength and be available to play Saturday against N.C. State.