Take, for example, West Virginia's running backs a few years ago. Headed by Steve Slaton and backed by solid reserves and promising newcomers, the Mountaineers looked loaded. However, an academic failing, a couple of injuries and a transfer or two, and pretty soon the position was in search of players to share the load.
The road in the opposite direction, unfortunately, doesn't seem to have an express lane. It takes time to identify and develop players with the ability to not only play, but also contribute meaningful snaps, and along the way there are dozens of pitfalls that combine to sap numbers. It's a never-ending battle, and one that coaches are constantly fighting.
One place where there is some promise for the 2009 Mountaineers, however, is along the defensive line. While there is still work to be done before WVU could proclaim itself two-deep and game-ready at each of the three defensive line spots, the combination of veteran experience, improved play over the spring and anticipation of fall arrivals gives hope that West Virginia could have one of its best, most effective, and yes, deepest, lines of recent history.
Scooter Berry and Chris Neild, who were solid all spring, will anchor the line in 2009. They will likely be candidates for all-league honors, and form a tandem that could be among the most effective in Mountaineer history. Add in Larry Ford and Julian Miller, who fought for defensive end rights throughout the spring, and the starting unit promises to be effective. That still leaves, however, at least two more openings for contributors.
One of those could well be walk-on Joshua Taylor, who was the recipient of the Blue & Gold News' Tommy Nickolich Award, which is presented to the outstanding walk-on in the program. Taylor, according to Berry, not only deserved the award, but could well be in the fight for playing time this fall.
"He's been working hard since he got here," said Berry of the Miramar, Fla., native. "Like Coach Kirlav said, he fights. It doesn't matter if he's tired or whatever, he fights every day, and he gives 110% every time. I hope he gets a scholarship real soon. I think he just got one rep last year, and I know that bothers him, because he wants to play. He really improved and did a great job this spring."
The scholarship offer will likely be predicated on whether or not Taylor is able to push his way into a contributing role, which Berry thinks is forthcoming.
"Having Josh is a good addition to the depth chart, because you want people out there that fight just as hard as you. I think he's going to do that."
If Taylor can continue his upward arc, that still leaves quality snaps available for at least one lineman. Like just about everyone who follows the West Virginia program, Berry is eyeing someone who has yet to set foot on the playing field to take some of those reps.
"I am really looking forward to Tevita Finau coming in," Berry noted. "I want to see him play. There's been a lot of hype, and I think he will be able to help. If we establish a six to eight player defensive line rotation, that will be perfect. I am looking forward to that."
Eight players in the rotation would be a dream for any three-position line, but if everything pans out, that could be a possibility this year. Zac Cooper, who could still move down to defensive end in pass rush situations, is one potential contributor. So too is redshirt freshman Jorge Wright, who might not be ready to go at the start of the season, but could develop as the year progresses and see some action by the time the meat of the schedule rolls around. Then there is nose tackle Chris Palmer, whose progress was first delayed by surgeries on both shoulders, then set back again this spring with gall bladder surgery, which caused him to miss all 15 practices. He is expected to be released for full workouts within the next two weeks, and if he fulfills the promise he showed as a high schooler, WVU could be as well-stocked as it has been in a number of years. The fact that Palmer and Wright could develop at their own pace, without being rushed into action too early, could certainly also help in their overall development.
Of course, there are a lot of "ifs" in the projections noted about. Finau and Palmer haven't taken one college practice snap yet, let alone one in a game. Wright, while showing great potential, hasn't been on the field yet either. Given the law of averages, if nothing else, all three can't be expected to become great players. However, at this point in the run up to the 2009 season, West Virginia at least has the chance to develop that much desired quality depth in one of the key units of the defense.