In a season of change, one of the big challenges for the West Virginia University football team will be adjusting to some pretty drastic changes on the defensive side of the ball.
Gone are longtime defensive coordinator Tony Gibson and the 3-3-5 scheme he likes to deploy with the Mountaineers. First-year head coach Neal Brown brought Vic Koenning with him from Troy University to serve as WVU’s new defensive coordinator, and with that switch comes a scheme many of the Mountaineers will be playing for the first time.
Koenning’s defense is hard to pin down with numbers like “3-3-5” but at it’s most basic, the new WVU defensive coordinator will use something very close to a 4-3 defense with four down linemen and three linebackers.
As of Friday afternoon, there is no depth chart out for the Mountaineers, but let’s take a look at the different position groups now that preseason camp has come to a close and classes have started on campus in Morgantown.
This is an interesting group because new defensive line coach Jordan Lesley has said he wants to try to keep players limited to around 40 snaps per game, which is good in the sense that it keeps players fresh. The downside to that, as the WVU roster is currently assembled, is with four positions to fill now, the Mountaineer defensive line is somewhat thin on depth. Expect to see redshirt sophomore Taijh Alston, redshirt junior Jeffrey Pooler and Michigan graduate transfer Reuben Jones get a lot of playing time on the ends, with some combination of senior Reese Donahue, sophomore Dante Stills, junior Darius Stills and redshirt senior Brenon Thrift get the bulk of the first-team reps on the interior at tackle and nose guard.
The “3” in “4-3” represents three linebackers, but WVU might be more of a “31/2” team in 2019. On the outside, sophomore Josh Chandler will man the “Will” position and, at least in preseason camp, was probably WVU’s best defensive player. He will likely be backed up by former Martinsburg High standout Deamonte Lindsay, a redshirt senior and former safety, with the Will linebackers being asked to do much more in pass coverage than in the past. In the middle at “Mike” linebacker there are a handful of in-state products pushing for playing time. Redshirt junior Dylan Tonkery, a multiple-time state champion at Bridgeport High, leads that group, with Morgantown native Shea Campbell, a redshirt senior, and former Fairmont Senior standout Jake Abbott, a redshirt sophomore, behind him.
The “bandit” linebacker will have some coverage responsibilities, but the main objective there is to put pressure on the opponents behind the line of scrimmage. Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan was in line to be a starter at bandit before news broke this week that he will be suspended for West Virginia’s first four games. That opens the door for players such as redshirt senior Quondarius Qualls and redshirt junior Zach Sandwisch — who has shown some ability in pass coverage as well. Cowan’s absence could also open the door for senior Adam Hensley, who is returning from a season-ending knee injury against Iowa State in 2018, to slide into the depth chart here.
That leaves the “spear” position, which is, to keep things simple, kind of a mix between a safety and a linebacker. That suits senior JoVanni Stewart, who came to WVU as a safety and made the switch to linebacker last season, just fine. Stewart is the likely starter at spear, but expect to see some playing time for redshirt freshman Kwantel Raines or even redshirt junior Dante Bonamico, who was a high school teammate of Tonkery’s at Bridgeport and made the switch from dedicated safety to the spear during preseason camp.
This group of cornerbacks is light on experienced depth but could surprise some with the talent displayed during preseason camp. Seniors Keith Washington and Hakeem Bailey have cemented themselves as the starters, but there are several freshmen behind them pushing for playing time. That includes Nicktory Fortune, Tae Mayo and Tacorey Turner — all true freshmen. Throw in junior college transfer Dreshuan Miller, who originally committed to Louisiana State before signing with WVU, and the Mountaineer corners could be decent this season.
More than any other position during preseason camp, the West Virginia safeties have been in flux. Senior Josh Norwood, a converted cornerback, seems like a lock to top the depth chart at free safety, but just about everything else at the back of the Mountaineer defense seems to change almost daily. True freshmen Tykee Smith and Kerry Martin, a former Capital High standout, as well as redshirt junior Jake Long appear to be the backups at free safety. On the other side is another hybrid position in Koenning’s defense — the “cat” safety, which is basically a more flexible version of a traditional strong safety. Redshirt junior Sean Mahone has impressed coaches during camp at the cat position. Bonamico and Long could both also be candidates for some playing time at cat, but the outlook behind Mahone at the position remains somewhat unclear.
Let’s throw the specialists in here while we’re at it. Former Hampshire High standout Evan Staley, a redshirt junior, is back to resume his role as West Virginia’s placekicker in 2019. The Mountaineers finally got an Australian punter on campus after several failed attempts when Louisiana State graduate transfer Josh Growden arrived in Morgantown during preseason camp. Growden will be the starter at punter as well as the Mountaineers’ holder — a position he held for three season with LSU. Redshirt senior Rex Sunahara will be the long snapper again in 2019.
As for who will return kicks and punts, that is (no pun intended) still up in the air and will likely be revealed, for the first game at least, when a depth chart is released.