After last year’s debacle with Joe DeForest at the helm, Keith Patterson will take over as full time defensive coordinator for the Mountaineers this season. This is Patterson’s second year with West Virginia football and he has quite the rebuilding project on his hands. The players should now be accustomed to the new 3-4 scheme that was implemented last season, and there’s a decent amount of experience to be optimistic about with seven starters returning.
Bright spots for the defense last year were few and far between. However, safety Karl Joseph and linebacker Isaiah Bruce are players the defense can build around. Joseph is without question the best player on the defensive side of the ball. He’s a ball-hawking safety that is only going to improve as the year goes on.
Bruce is also the kind of player WVU can build it’s linebacking corps around. With a full year of Big 12 Conference play already under his belt, he should really take off this season. As sophomores, the Mountaineers will need Joseph and Bruce to be even better.
Here’s a look at my three keys for the defense this season.
1. Improvement in the secondary: The Mountaineers must improve vastly in the back end if there’s any hope for this defensive unit to turn negatives into positives. The defense gave up 40 or more points 6 times in Big 12 Conference play. The Big 12 is a pass-happy league and if WVU learned anything from last season, they had better find some cornerbacks capable of staying within ten yards of opposing teams’ wideouts.
Nearly every game I watched last season, WVU’s corners were put out on an island. The opposing offenses would complete passes, and a safety or corner wouldn’t be remotely close to the ball. Whether these are missed assignments, bad talent, or just flat out inexperience, it must be fixed. I feel that WVU has plenty of talent to turn things around, it’s not the talent that’s necessarily bad, it seems to be more of a mental game. Players need to be put in the right spots to succeed in the 3-4 scheme.
I was reviewing the Texas Tech blowout loss from last season and one thing was painfully obvious: there was rarely ever help over the top for any corners. Texas Tech spread the field on WVU and nearly every corner was forced to play one on one. Passes were continuously thrown over the top by Tech, one after another for long gains.
But this was the case with basically every Big 12 game. No matter how good the offense is, it won’t matter if the defense can’t show up, week in and week out. The Mountaineers are now in a conference that loves to spread teams out and toss it around the yard, so they better get used to it, recruit accordingly, and devise better defensive schemes in order to stop the pass.
2. Pressure on opposing quarterbacks/turnovers: The defensive line was rarely in opposing backfields last year. That will have to change, along with improvement in the secondary. Will Clarke and Shaq Rowell return for WVU and should be solid building blocks as they spend their final year in Morgantown. The defense needs leadership and these two can provide it.
The Mountaineer defense should be more comfortable in year two of the 3-4 scheme; last season was a disaster when it comes to getting pressure on QB’s. The sack leaders were Kyle Rose and Shaq Petteway at 1.5 and the interception leaders were Isaiah Bruce and Karl Joseph with 2 each.
Yes, that’s for an entire season.
WVU must come up with a way to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, or they’ll have all day to sit back and torch the secondary, reminiscent of last season. I also noticed while watching the defense last year, that then defensive coordinator Joe DeForest would call for a blitz package, but the player or players doing the blitzing would never reach the quarterback, thus leaving the guys in secondary in one on one situations, at the mercy of the offensive player. Hopefully, this is an area where coach Keith Patterson will make a difference and send the right calls in. However, there were also times when DeForest made the right call and WVU would drop a bunch of guys back in coverage on a pass play, and somehow the opposing QB would still find someone wide open.
Above all, there just seemed to be missed assignments and mass confusion at times. Causing turnovers is a great way for the defense to get off the field. It seemed like the only time WVU’s defense came off the field last season was when the opposing team was done with their scoring drive. Patterson has a track record for coaching defenses that can cause turnovers, hopefully he can help WVU improve on the 20 they forced last season.
3. Talent and Depth: The Mountaineers should benefit from having more talent and depth than last season. Experience will also be another key factor, as many players saw valuable playing time last year. The way in which Big 12 offenses spread the field requires defenses to have great depth, because the offenses often do not huddle. WVU is three deep at almost every defensive position this fall, so when Baylor spreads the field on them, the Mountaineers should be able to give players a breather, instead of just keeping the same ones on the field for an entire drive. Defensive depth is a big area of concern for Big 12 teams, but I think WVU is beginning to develop the type of depth they’ll need to compete for years to come. This type of depth wasn’t needed to compete with the likes of the Big East Conference, but it’s now needed just for survival against Big 12 spread offenses.
I’m expecting WVU to turn in a better defensive performance than last year, but in order for them to do so, they must come up big against the pass, cause more turnovers, and get to the quarterback more often. Until a few of those things begin to happen, skepticism is the way to go.