For more than 30 years, one of the far corners of the practice field was the domain of the defensive line. Huddled up against the wall of the west stands or grouped at the far end of the grass field, every defensive lineman went through drills with their coach – most often long-time assistant Bill Kirelawich. This year, however, the defensive linemen are split into two groups, each with a set of goals aimed at fitting into the overall scheme.
On one side of the end zone, defensive ends and bucks put in work with a bit more emphasis on agility, while on the other side, nose and defensive tackles labor concentrate a bit more on power moves. Of course, both elements are present for all the players, but there's enough difference in assignments that defensive line coach Erik Slaughter sees benefits in splitting up the two positions. Thus, as a practice session progresses, observers will see the energetic assistant bouncing back and forth between the two groups. The bucks, a hybrid defensive end and linebacker, will get more work later on to cover their different responsibilities, but in the early stages of camp they work with the ends with an eye toward run defense responsibilities.
"We like to divide them up that way in drill work, because the run fit responsibilities are the same [for the ends and the bucks]," Slaughter explained. "The thing the buck has to do in addition is pass cover, but that will come later. We switch up the coaching responsibilities. I handle the footwork and the technique, and [a graduate assistant] will put the other group through agility work. We switch back and forth during practice."
Through the first week of camp, players have stuck to one position during individual work, but that will change as the calendar flips toward Sept. 1 and the opening of the season.
"Right now we are not double training any players at buck or end or end and tackle, but we will," Patterson said. "We're not to that point yet." There are some players, like Will Clarke [at end and tackle] that no doubt will play both. My philosophy, and I think I share that with Coach DeForest and Coach Patterson, is we want to match up with you. If you are going to put big people on the field we want to be big. If you put small people on the field we want to be small. It's just the way the game is today. You have to have a plan for both. You aren't going to see the same thing every week. You have to be able to line up against a two-back [set] or against teams that spread it all over the field. A big guy won't be the best match-up there."
WVU has a number of players, such as Tyler Anderson, Jorge Wright and J.B. Lageman, who will likely end up playing multiple positions along the front line. Their positioning will depend on the opponent, the style of play and their strengths, so there's a lot to figure out before the season opens. That process begins with technique work, as Slaughter labors to instill his fundamentals in his players.
"I haven't studied their old defense, so I don't know what they were taught in terms of technique, Slaughter said of the transition in coaching and scheme. "I haven't asked them. I know what I teach, but football is football. Get on the block, get off the block and make the tackle. If the guy goes backward, rush the quarterback. It's not that hard. The guy can go away from you, to you or backwards Staying square, getting off the block and making the tackle are the keys to what we do."
The new system does allow more upfield attacking and a chance for defensive linemen to get into the backfield and make more plays, but Slaughter explains that it's not an all-out blitz in a search for the ball. The linemen, no matter what the front, still have assignments and responsibilities.
"Losing gap discipline is the quickest way to get beat," he said of the number one assignment for the men in the trenches. "Everyone has a gap no matter what defense you play. Our deal here is we're more of an attacking, shading style than they played last year. But it's still press, get off the block and make a tackle."