Coming into fall camp, West Virginia's defensive front was viewed as capable, but certainly lacking in depth and experience. Will Clarke and Jorge Wright were being counted on to anchor the unit, but after that there were a lot of questions, if not a lack of potential. Returnees such as Shaq Rowell, J.B. Lageman, Trevor Demko and Kyle Rose were hopefuls to step into larger roles, while newcomers such as Christian Brown, Korey Harris and Imarjaye Albury looked to make an early impression. The addition of the Buck linebacker role also brought an added dimension to the trench corps, with players such as Tyler Anderson and Chidoziem Ezemma set to help in certain situations against the run.
Those numbers, and the talent of the players at the position, are certainly positives, but they don't mean that quality depth is immediately present. The teaching process Slaughter has been going through with his players started off with the fundamentals that he believes are the building blocks to successful line play – ones that will lead to a better, more prepared depth chart in the future.
Slaughter sums up one of these anchor points as “precision with power”, a phrase which indicates that simply relying on strength and bulk up front are not enough.
“If you are going to take on blocks, you have to have it,” he said in describing the philosophy. “If you try to get power before precision, you aren't going to be able to control the blocker. So we break it down, we slow it down, and focus on getting the hands in the right place. If you can't do that, you can't hit with any power. So, it's precision first, power second. When we get to the point where we can do that, then it's on to the next stage, which is where the other guys move. Then you have to be precise when they are moving, and then bring the power with it.”
A trip to the far corner of the practice field revealed some of Slaughter's techniques. Using a blocking sled, Slaughter had the linemen on their knees at the start of one drill. At the snap, the linemen brought their hands up to a correct contact point on the sled dummy. Over and over the drill ran until Slaughter was satisfied with the positioning and technique of each player. Only then did linemen get into stances and begin working on hitting with more strength.
Slaughter believes that correct technique is the key to generating power, and as such he isn't bothered by the comparatively smallish size of some of West Virginia's up-front defenders.
“Are we big enough?” he asked in response to several questions along that topic line. “To me it all goes back to precision with power. A guy that weighs 350 pounds that has power without precision, it doesn't really matter. That's where the technique comes in. If you are going to go against a bigger guy, you'd better be good with your hands and your feet Guys can be big and not necessarily powerful. Also, there's one other thing – our defensive guys move around a lot.”
West Virginia's mobility on defense is something Patterson is relying upon to help combat offensive lines that might outweigh his group, and he believes that the correct application of those fundamentals will let WVU have success. However, he admits that one other shortcoming will be difficult to overcome in the early stages of the season.
“I don't know if depth is a problem, but we haven't been in a game yet and we have maybe three guys that have ever played," he said. "Experience is the bigger issue. We have some guys who can line up and play but they haven't done it yet. I can't answer that until I see how they respond in certain situations -- like going to Austin to play in front of a bunch of people and see how they do. All we can do is put guys out there and hope they play hard and do it.”
To help hedge his bets, and to make sure that he can try different combinations when required, Slaughter has begun teaching his players more than one position along the front. Naturally, experienced vets like Clarke (tackle and end) and Wright (nose and tackle) are getting that crash course and doing well. The newcomers and up-and-comers are also showing some aptitude for the new duties, but as Slaughter is careful to note, they haven't done it in a real game yet.
“The defensive line is an interchangeable kind of deal. Just this week, we started double teaching guys. There has been a learning curve the last couple days. We felt like they were comfortable where they were, but you want to put different combos on the field because you don’t want to be stuck.”
No matter what players wind up at any of the defensive line positions, it still all comes back to those basics. Slaughter, just as he does on the practice field, repeated his belief in those fundamentals several times during a brief conversation.
“You want to be technically sound and know what to do,” he replied when asked for the keys to line play. “You want to get on and off blocks. You want to play hard. If you do that, you have a chance.”