STORYLINES TO WATCH
Men in the middle
West Virginia will look to a solid pair of middle linebackers in its 3-4 setup defensively. Isaiah Bruce and Nick Kwiatkoski have both been tackling machines for the Mountaineers over the course of the last two seasons and should continue to have a big impact anchoring a talented group of linebackers.
Deeper than ever On a Mountaineer team that is expected to be deeper than it was a year ago, the WVU linebackers could be the group on the team with the most depth. Between a solid group of returning impact players leading the way and some newcomers with plenty of potential, this could definitely be a group to keep an eye on.
A Better Understanding Although they don't want to come out and say it, it does look like WVU is switching more to a 3-3-5 stack defense, much like it ran when defensive coordinator Tony Gibson was at WVU with Jeff Casteel. With that, players like Wes Tonkery have had great camps thanks to the better understanding of what it expected at the spots, and him, Jared Barber and Jewone Snow can help some other guys who weren't around when that defense was being run in the past.
Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said he has been a part of some pretty impressive meetings that have made players understand that they need to get things figured out or they wouldn't be playing in the past.
But not many of them would have surpassed the one he had to have with his linebackers during the first week of preseason camp this month. This "Come to Jesus" meeting served as his way of getting the point across to the players that they need to understand what is expected of them, or they would not be getting much time on the field.
"I tell the guys all the time, 'When I'm yelling and talking to you, I'm talking to myself too,'" Gibson said. "Obviously they didn't understand what I wanted, so I take that on me, but they need to learn how to play physically all the time. We don't want linebackers playing passive. We want to get downhill and stop the run.
Gibson is making a few moves this year, heading into unfamiliar coaching territory. After serving as the West Virginia safeties coach a year ago, he has settled in as the linebackers coach while also getting the call to be a defensive coordinator for the first time at the FBS level.
And his philosophy as he gets ready to call plays against the highly touted Big 12 offenses is fairly simple. He knows teams are going to be able to pass, but it's a big part of the linebackers' jobs to be able to do the thing they will need to do in order to make sure the defense can take the next step actually happens: They need to focus on stopping the run.
Last season when WVU struggled, it was when teams were able to go through the air and on the ground effectively. If you eliminate part of the equation and make an offense turn one-dimensional, it quickly becomes much easier to turn things around.
"With a defense where we're going with three down guys, we don't want vertical seams in the defense, but when that stuff happens we have to be the guys playing downhill," Gibson said. "I don't give a crap about giving up passing yards, but we're not going to let people run the ball on us."
It helps that this group of WVU linebackers comes into the season deep and experienced, with a lot of players needing to step up and play early in their careers thanks to lack of depth and an almost-unending list of injuries at the position a year ago.
Only safety Karl Joseph has more tackles than linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Isaiah Bruce over the course of the last two seasons. In their first two seasons playing for WVU, the duo has a combined 251 tackles and have started 30 games.
Those two are the leaders of the group, with good instincts who always seem to find ways to make big tackles when they need to come up with one. But the benefit of having more depth is being able to have a wide variety of players who can do a lot of different things that a group will need to succeed.
With that, the Mountaineers also have a few solid pass rush options that will be pushing for playing time and a chance to make an impact. Brandon Golson has been limited throughout camp and will likely split time with senior Wes Tonkery at the WILL spot, while Edward Muldrow began taking some first-team reps from Bruce at the SAM spot toward the end of camp.
The two of them could give WVU the physicality and presence off the edge the Mountaineers have been trying to find.
"Golson is one of the best in pass rush on the outside. He's fast, really gives me good looks any time I get to go against him," said offensive lineman Adam Pankey. "There's really no dropoff, they're all pretty experienced. They've been playing for a while now, so they're right up there with everybody."
What Gibson says will be important for this group will be being the group that is looked at the be the leaders of this defense. A lot of what the Mountaineers want to do will go, in part, through them.
If we dictate the tempo of the football game, that means we're doing really well on defense and we're getting them out of what they want to do," he said.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
1. Isaiah Bruce, Junior
2013: 43 tackles, 5 TFL, 3 FF, 2 FR
2. Edward Muldrow, Junior
2013 (at Copiah-Lincoln CC): 56 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF
1. Nick Kwiatkoski, Junior
2013: 86 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 INT, 2 FF, 1 FR
2. Jared Barber, Senior (currently injured)
2013: 71 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 FF, 1 FR
3. Al-Rasheed Benton, Freshman
2013: 2012 (at Shabazz HS): 110 tackles, 73 TFL, 2 INT
1. Brandon Golson
2013: 41 tackles, 7 TFL, 4 sacks, 5 FF
2. Wes Tonkery, Senior
2013: Nine tackles
What they're saying
"You know my biggest fear right now is tackling still. We’re still missing way too many tackles. We had a live situation (Aug. 15), and we missed 22 tackles. So we really honed in on it this morning and thought that the kids reacted well. I think we only had two or three missed tackles during the whole scrimmage (Aug. 16).”
- Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson
“It's nice hearing stuff like that. Just a relentless work ethic – I had to have it. Coming off an injury, I had to get back as fast as I could. There was no day to waste.”
- Linebacker Wes Tonkery on earning praise from coaches during camp
Meet the newcomers
All eyes (but unfortunately, no microphones) were on junior college transfer Edward Muldrow during preseason camp. As a newcomer to the program, he's still deemed off limits for interviews, so it was tough to get his perspective on how he has progressed during his time at WVU. Still, his on-field time shows that he's going to be a major part of West Virginia's defense this call, and could play the equivalent of starters' snaps in some games.
Muldrow's chief talent is his ability to run and rush the passer. With a build that reminds of former 'backers such as James "Dirty" Davis, Muldrow can bend the edge and get into the pocket to pressure the quarterback. He als has a big wingspan, which should help him cut down on passing lanes when dropping into coverage, although that surely won't be his primary function. Were it not for the presence of stalwart Isaiah Bruce, Muldrow would easily be the starter at the sam 'linebacker, but he'll still get plenty of snaps, especially in passing situations as WVU tries to get its 11 best defenders against passers into the game. Were Bruce needed at another linebacking position due to injury or underperformance, Muldrow's ability would make the Mountaineer defensive staff breathe a little easier if called upon to make such a switch.
Freshman Xavier Preston has a solid frame and good build that should allow him to compete at power linebacking spots in the future, but that's still a year or two away. He clearly has talent, and his hitting ability stands out, but he's destined for a redshirt this season. If WVU can continue to get quality newcomers like this duo across the board, it will move up in the Big 12 hierarchy.
BGN publisher Kevin Kinder contributed to this report.