The West Virginia University football team is sure to miss some of the players departed from last season’s team, but perhaps no hole on the defensive side of the ball is bigger than that left by linebacker David Long — the 2018 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year who is now with the Tennessee Titans.
There will be a new scheme with slightly different responsibilities, but sophomore Josh Chandler appears to be the man tabbed to take over in Long’s absence for the Mountaineer defense.
“Josh Chandler is a guy that I’ve mentioned a lot,” first-year West Virginia coach Neal Brown said in April ahead of WVU’s spring game. “He’s continuing to make plays, and he’s one of our best guys as far as preparing themselves mentally going into practice.”
Chandler’s hard work in the spring paid off. He was honored with one of WVU’s prestigious “Iron Mountaineer” awards — given to the West Virginia players tabbed as the most outstanding performers in the offseason strength and conditioning program.
He’ll need to be able to hold up physically in the demanding “Will” linebacker spot. In new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s 4-2-5 scheme, Chandler will be asked to play in space more than Long was as the Mountaineers’ Will linebacker in recent seasons.
“I’ve been able to increase my weight and gain more camaraderie with my teammates,” Chandler said. “We’re doing team bonding things this summer, and we’re also going at it a little more on the defensive side.”
Last season, Chandler appeared in 12 games — mostly on special teams — registering 14 tackles (nine of them solo). Getting to school several months early was a big boost for Chandler, who enrolled early at WVU after a standout career at Canton (Ohio) McKinley High.
That extra time allowed him to get comfortable in the collegiate environment, which in turn allowed him get on the field and impress both the former and current coaching staffs.
Chandler, listed at 5-foot-11 and 234 pounds, said it took seeing players like former Capital High standout Kerry Martin come in early the same way he did to make him realize just how much that extra time was able to help him the previous year.
“[Enrolling early] helps a lot,” Chandler said, “At the time, you may not be able to see it in yourself, because you’re just taking it day by day. But when you sit back and watch someone else go through it, you realize the progress they are making, and you see the benefit.”
This season the terminology will be a little different and he will likely be called on to provide some help in pass converge on occasion, Chandler said. That is not much different than what will be asked of the “Spear” safety in Koenning’s defense, only the Will is going to be called on to get down in the box and play the role of a more traditional linebacker while the Spear will do more in coverage on the opposite side.
“For me at the Will, it is a mix of a traditional safety and a Will ‘backer,” Chandler said. “You kind of are out of the box more, but it’s still mainly a ‘backer.
“You can never be too comfortable with anything, so you have to put the work in to be prepared. But I feel pretty comfortable with the new defense. I feel pretty good. I’m in a good spot.”
Occupying the Spear spot opposite Chandler will likely be senior safety JoVanni Stewart, who last season made the move to linebacker out of necessity once injuries hit WVU hard at the position. Once Koenning was brought in by Brown as the new WVU defensive coordinator, he went to work seeing what he had on his hands with the Mountaineers’ roster. After getting a look at Stewart and Chandler, he started to brainstorm ways to get those players more involved in the defense.
“[Koenning] said I was able to move around quick in the box so he said he would have some different things for me but he just took the strengths of our entire defense and just kind of converted it,” Chandler said. “Me and JoVanni are smaller ‘backers, so he’s been able to kind of create the Will and Spear positions to kind of work toward our strengths and weaknesses.”