Room To Run

Nick Kwiatkoski

Time is a luxury often ill-afforded. West Virginia's defense is looking to change that for its linebackers this season.

The same tweak to new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson's 3-4 set that sends lineman upfield in a more vertical attacking style has the added benefit of allowing the linebackers additional time and space in which to operate – and hopefully make more plays.

"We are a lot more patient," Will linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski said. "You don't see the offensive line coming at us as fast, so that gives us time and room to work. For us, we like that a lot better. Some (past) defenses, the offensive line was coming right at us, hitting us (without hindrance). Now, the D-lineman are working for us, keeping the blocks off a bit, giving us room. We basically are patient and then move."

Kwiatkoski, who made 28 tackles as a freshman last season, said at times there was "a hole at the Sam spot last year, and you had to cover that up," meaning the strongside linebacker position was engaged in another section of the field, either rushing or dropping into pass coverage for another blitzing secondary player, which left a gap often exposed by opposing offenses. There's a bit less of that under Patterson's set-up, where the focus isn't on the myriad of angles and approaches to the pocket as it was under Joe DeForest, but rather sending the line up the field in an attempt to control offensive fronts, establish a new line of scrimmage and collapse the pocket to force foes out of their comfort zone.

The basic design itself makes the weakside linebacker assignments a bit easier to execute because one isn't being stretched quite as thin on a significant number of plays. That's not to imply West Virginia won't employ ‘backers in its pressure and blitz packages. Just that there is likely to be more pressure coming from the line combined with hybrid players as opposed to linebacker positions. The linebackers, in turn, are less inclined to be looping or trying to crash the backfield via an open gap created by stunting and other horizontal movement – which WVU often utilized last year – and instead reading the play and trying to attack vertically while maintaining gap control and other typical assignments.

"It's early, but we are striving," said Kwiatkoski, a sophomore slated to start in front of junior Jared Barber after beginning his collegiate career at safety. "I think we are going to be a great defense. I like playing around these guys. The bar is set high. All of us can play and we have a confidence with each other."

Kwiatkoski acknowledged that tackling was among the more significant issues for West Virginia's defense last season. He noted that has been a focus this spring, along with better angles to the ball and an increased awareness of where one is on the field and his relation to breaking down an opposing play. And while the tackling isn't yet phenomenal, it has gotten increasingly crisper as spring drills progressed.

Just in the spring, we have improved greatly," he said. "It's hard to tell, again, because it's only spring. But we have definitely improved from the start. I expect great things."

The Bethel Park, Pa. native, listed at 6-2, 232 pounds, said he would like to play at 235-plus for the season, while focusing on footwork throughout the offseason for "more quickness as opposed to overall speed."

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