Up or Down: Defensive Line

As we head into the final few weeks before the start of fall football practice, BlueGoldNews.com looks at the potential highs and lows of each unit on the 2013 Mountaineer football team. Up first is the defensive line, a group that could have one of the biggest swings toward either end of the performance scale.

In the run-up to fall camp, we will examine each unit in depth. We'll look at personnel, strengths and weaknesses as we try to set a threshold for what the best performances could be – and we'll also examine the flip side to see what might happen if questions aren't answered in a positive fashion.

UP: Finally, West Virginia appears to have the makings of some depth on the defensive line. A legitimate two-deep rotation could be available in 2013, which would give assistant coach Erik Slaughter some desperately needed tools to work with as he tries to build a group that can slow Big 12 offenses. He'll be working a bit of a new scheme, one in which the two exterior linemen function with more interchangeable roles than the old defensive tackle/defensive end combination did. That should help ease confusion and let rotations at those positions come more naturally, and also accelerate the learning process.

On the inside, the Mountaineers can call on Shaq Rowell and Christian Brown to man the nose. After a few seasons of playing undersized (yet gutty) players at the position, WVU can finally put two players there that have the size and strength to battle their interior offensive line opponents. If Rowell continues to embrace a leadership role and Brown can provide 15-20 snaps worth of solid play, West Virginia could have the best rotation it has put on the field at that spot in years.

The story is much the same at the end spots, where Will Clarke and Kyle Rose hold an edge on the first string positions. However, players such as Eric Kinsey, Noble Nwachukwu, Korey Harris, Dozie Ezemma and Trevor Demko are fighting for backup time, and out of that group of six there should be at least a couple that emerge as contributors of some sort. Dontrill Hyman, assuming he graduates from junior college and arrives on campus, could also make a push for time, while freshman Marvin Gross has the speed to help as a pass rusher.

DOWN: While there are a number of bodies available, Rowell, Rose and Clarke are the only game-in, game-out proven performers in the bunch – and they all shared a deficiency in pass rushing ability. While a three-man line isn't expected to rack up a bunch of sacks, top-level performers do manage to win a few battles and put pressure on the QB, and that's something the line failed to do last year. The trio combined for just 1.5 sacks last year (all credited to Clarke) and only five quarterback hits. While that last number might not be very accurate, given the sometimes scrambled state of college stats, it still paints a picture of a line that doesn't put much heat on opposing passers. If that trend continues in 2013, WVU's defense will have problems improving.

To bolster that, the Mountaineers are counting on Hyman and Gross (as well as other players at different positions) to get more pressure on the QB. However, Hyman isn't on campus yet, as he's still working toward his junior college degree, while Gross can be expected to suffer the typical growing pains any undersized freshman lineman faces. Neither might be ready to play in September, which would put more pressure on the mostly young backups to improve their own abilities to collapse the pocket. And if only one of those players comes through, WVU will again be playing shorthanded up front.

WVU opponents will again attempt to expose the Mountaineers' lack of athleticism on the defensive line. Speed, especially at defensive end, was wanting a year ago, and until a couple of players show the ability to contain the edge and get into the pocket, West Virginia's pass defense is going to suffer.

KEY ITEMS:

While personnel development is always important, we're going to try to identify one thing that has to happen for West Virginia to have success as we look at each unit. For the defensive line, pushing the pocket is it.

While it would be great for the defensive line to get sacks, that's not the be-all and end-all for the guys up front. If they can put pressure on the pocket, and make the quarterback move and be uncomfortable, that can be almost as good as a sack. In today's parlance, it's called "getting the QB off the spot". Think of the QB on a three-, five- or seven-step drop (or shorter, if in the shotgun.) Whatever the starting point, there's a spot that he's heading for where he wants to be able to plant his back foot, survey his receivers and release the ball. QBs that can do that are going to have much more success than those forced to move off the spot. Even making the passer move a step or two can help.

For West Virginia's line this year, that's a huge goal. Push offensive linemen back in the face of the QB, or get deep enough into the pocket to force a reload. Get hands up on the rush and close down throwing lanes. Bat a few balls, and maybe come up with a pick that's the result of a deflection. If this front, which could be six or seven deep, can do that, the prospects for an improved defense will be markedly up.

Next, we examine the linebacking corps, and identify the potential highs and lows as well as the critical performance factor that will lead to its success.

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