To say the least, WVU football coach Neal Brown faced a significant number of questions when he entered his first offseason a year ago.
Even though there was plenty of improvement to be observed in Brown’s second season, plenty of uncertainties will need to be addressed this offseason as well.
Further improvement on the field will likely be determined by the decisions off it, and it starts near the top for Brown with a big choice to make at defensive coordinator.
It would have been difficult for anyone to imagine how far West Virginia’s defense would come during the 2020 season, especially considering all of the adversity that occurred over the summer.
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and the university parted ways in July after Koenning was accused of using insensitive and insulting language toward players. The separation came just over a month before the season was set to begin.
It was fairly late in the game for significant staff shuffles, so instead of looking outside the program or tabbing a single staff member to take on the defensive coordinator duties, Brown promoted defensive line coach Jordan Lesley and cornerbacks coach Jahmile Addae to the roles of co-defensive coordinators.
It was certainly a nontraditional and possibly bold move with a defense that had to improve.
The Mountaineers were 74th nationally in total defense in 2019 (399.3 yards per game) and 73rd in scoring defense (28.8 points per game). The problem seemed to be as much on the defensive front as it was on the defensive backfield as the Mountaineers were 69th in rush defense (159.42) and 88th in pass defense (239.9).
Despite the situation being unconventional, it paid dividends immediately and for the majority of the season.
West Virginia finished with the fourth-best total defense in the country and the best among Power Five schools, allowing just 291.4 yards per game. Across the board, the defense excelled, finishing in a tie for 21st in scoring defense (20.5 points), 28th in rushing defense (131.8 yards) and No. 1 in the country in pass defense (159.6).
Some of the credit has to go to the unit’s personnel, which included consensus All-America tackle Darius Stills, a key senior transfer at linebacker in Tony Fields, who led the Big 12 in tackles per game, and a secondary spearheaded by sophomore Tykee Smith, who earned a spot on the All-America third team. But obviously, whatever hurdles were expected in terms of communication with multiple coordinators, it was overcome with flying colors as Lesley and Addae combined to engineer a turnaround that surpassed even the highest of preseason expectations.
So, what now?
Both coaches, in addition to five other assistants on the staff, are on expiring contracts, so it is certainly possible that the decision is taken out of Brown’s hands.
But assuming both Addae and Lesley return, can and will WVU continue to operate with co-coordinators on defense? Would both coaches be happy with that? If Brown were to choose, which would be the pick?
Both certainly bring their own cases to the table. Lesley has the longer coaching career and prior coordinator experience, having served in the capacity for five years at Kilgore College, Northwest Mississippi Community College and East Mississippi Community College, all on the junior college circuit. Lesley’s coaching career began as a graduate assistant at Troy in 2006.
Addae started as a graduate assistant at West Virginia in 2007, and though 2020 was his first year as a defensive coordinator, he has spent the entirety of his coaching career at the Division I level with stints at Michigan, Cincinnati, Arizona and Minnesota. Addae is one of WVU’s own, having played for the Mountaineers from 2001-2005.
It was Lesley who was nominated for the Broyles Award this year, an honor given to the best assistant coach in the country, likely meaning that in terms of outside perspective, Lesley was leading the way for the WVU defense. But at 36 years old, Addae is a rising commodity in the coaching ranks. Would his history and loyalty to WVU allow him to take a demotion should Lesley be given solo possession of the job?
In the competitive world of college coaching, could Brown, Lesley and Addae make a co-coordinator situation work again? If the overwhelming success of 2020 has any bearing, maybe they could.
But in an offseason full of important decisions in terms of personnel, recruiting and philosophy, Brown will not face a choice that will possibly have more bearing on his staff, his team and its momentum than this one.