Awaiting An Answer

Daron Roberts

When West Virginia takes the field for its season-opener against Marshall on Saturday, it will do so as a prohibitive favorite, ranked just outside the nation's top 10, led by a potential Heisman Trophy candidate. Indeed, there is much faith in the Mountaineers this season despite one lingering question no one can answer at this point.

Bowl projections, offseason award watch lists and preseason rankings all contained plenty of praise for WVU in the lead-up to the 2012 season. And why not? The team's offense is so talent-rich and experienced that head coach Dana Holgorsen said he would have been content to line up and play the opener a week ago -- a far cry from most coaches, who seem as if they would beg for more preparation time when the first game week rolls around.

But most of those projections have seen fit only to briefly mention the team's defense, noting the challenge of moving to a 3-4 scheme from the program's old 3-3-5 -- and attempting to do so without Bruce Irvin, Najee Goode and Keith Tandy, the veteran anchors of last year's defense.

Indeed, with only days separating West Virginia from the beginning of its season, no one -- not a single coach or player (and certainly no one among the gaggle of media covering the program) -- seems to have any clue what to expect when the team's defense lines up for the first series of the season.

"The most common question I get, whether it's from my aunt or my neighbor, is ‘How are you guys going to do this year?'" said cornerbacks coach Daron Roberts. "I always tell people that if I knew that, I wouldn't be coaching football. I'd be in the stock market somewhere, running a hedge fund."

Predicting results on Wall Street might be no trickier than pinpointing what the Mountaineers' defense will look like against Marshall. The only glimpse fans and reporters have gotten of this new scheme came in the Gold-Blue spring game, when things were pared down to the barest of essentials.

While Joe DeForest, WVU's first-year co-defensive coordinator, certainly knows the elements that are central to the scheme and has a grasp on the capabilities of his personnel, even he has serious questions about his defense that remain unanswered.

"We have no idea what it's going to be, [and we won't] even after the first game," DeForest said. "It's going to be an evolving defense based on how we see and react on Saturday, and what we can build off of after the Marshall game.

"They're not tested yet. They're not leaders until we see what happens when the bullets flying and things are going bad, not good. You want to see them lead when things are going bad ... it's easy to lead them through the good times."

Coaches kept things under wraps this offseason, showing essentially no "live action" work on the few occasions reporters were permitted to watch a brief period of practice.

Given that gamesmanship, it's little surprise the coaches have not seen fit to discuss too many details of the scheme -- all we know is that it is a 3-4 (that can convert to a 4-3 if need be) with an aggressive mindset, where turnovers are considered the prime statistic of merit. None of this is exactly earth-shattering or revolutionary.

In terms of the system itself -- the methods it employs to stop the run and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks -- precious little is known, especially for a team that is expected to be one of the nation's elite.

But finally, the curtain will be lifted when the Mountaineers take the field on defense for the first time on Saturday. Observers will finally get the chance to form an educated opinion on the new scheme (albeit with limited evidence). Roberts, the team's receivers coach-turned-cornerbacks coach, offered a glimpse of what to expect.

"We're going to play with a high level of intensity," he said. "We're not trying to rewrite the playbook when it comes to defensive calls and strategy, but the main thing we care about is effort. We believe effort and attitude creates turnovers. What we stress, week in and week out -- it will be that way this week, during the Big 12 [schedule] and the bowl game -- is playing with effort and attitude."

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