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West Virginia University safety Sean Mahone (right) led the Mountaineers last season with 80 tackles.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gazette-Mail sports editor Derek Redd counts down his 10 most important players on WVU’s 2020 roster.

West Virginia’s defense has some holes to fill in its starting lineup. The Mountaineers have to inaugurate five new starters on that unit, so those coming back will be called upon to not only indoctrinate those new starters, but also to pick up the slack if there are any growing pains.

So it’s fortunate for WVU that the leading tackler from 2019, safety Sean Mahone, will be back in the lineup in 2020.

Mahone started all 12 games last year at WVU’s cat safety spot. He finished the season with a team-best 80 tackles, five for a loss, one sack, one forced fumble, a pass breakup and an interception. Not too bad for a guy who recorded just nine tackles over two previous seasons of spot duty.

His overall stats show he’s steady. He also showed last season that he can be spectacular. Against Baylor, he recorded nine tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Against Texas Tech, he registered 15 tackles, including one for a loss. He became the fifth Mountaineer defender to log a double-digit tackling performance.

If there is somewhere he can improve, it’s adding some interceptions to his total. That would benefit the Mountaineer defense as a whole, as it tied for 89th in the Football Bowl Subdivision with just eight picks in 2019.

The WVU secondary is a spot where veteran leadership is needed the most. The safety spots are in good shape with Mahone and Tykee Smith returning. Yet West Virginia will break in two new starters at corner, as Keith Washington and Hakeem Bailey each have gone on to the NFL.

Smith has loads of talent, but is just a sophomore. This season will be Mahone’s fifth in the WVU program. He has played for different head coaches and different defensive coordinators and worked within different schemes. Working in those varied scenarios will be helpful in bringing along young defensive backs. Even if his playing time on defense was sparse before 2019, his experience will be key to helping improve a pass defense that was ranked 88th last season in the FBS.

Contact Derek Redd at 304-348-1712 or derek.redd@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.