Last season, there is little debate over the side of the football that hurt the West Virginia Mountaineers most. While Geno Smith and co. were piling up points, the defense was giving them up just as fast. And often faster.
Erik Slaughter is back for his second season as West Virginia’s defensive line coach. The line was actually rather solid against the run, finishing fourth in Big 12 rushing defense last season.
The same can’t be said for getting pressure on the quarterback, as the Mountaineers struggled all season long to bring down opposing signal callers. The returning sack leaders along the defensive line are Kyle Rose and Will Clarke with one and a half each. Needless to say, if WVU’s defense is going to see a significant improvement, that stat can’t be repeated.
What we know along the line is that redshirt senior Will Clarke will start his final season at defensive end. He’s played in 29 career games and started 22 of them. Clarke was named All-Big 12 Conference Honorable Mention last season and finished with 26 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, and three pass breakups. He’s primed to end his career on a stellar note and should be a player the defense can really count on.
Starting at nose tackle will be senior Shaq Rowell. He and Clarke seem to be set in stone along the line. Rowell has played in 23 career games and started 12 of them. He finished with 42 total tackles, including 18 solo stops, two tackles for loss, and two pass breakups.
The third spot is less certain. I’d expect sophomore Christian Brown and redshirt sophomore Kyle Rose to play a lot. Those two are very promising prospects and will add very good depth on the line. Brown is very athletic for a defensive lineman and WVU fans should look for big things out of him this season. He saw action in 11 games last season and finished with 11 tackles, including eight solo tackles, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. I wouldn’t be surprised if he really took over the third spot on the line. As for Rose, he played in all 13 games last year, making his first career start against Kansas State. JUCO transfer Dontrill Hyman should see playing time, hopefully he can help the Mountaineers improve on pressuring Big 12 quarterbacks. He’s big, athletic, and will add plenty of depth at defensive end.
A few players that will most likely crack the rotation and add more depth will be Eric Kinsey, Imarjaye Albury, and Noble Nwachukwu. Albury and Nwachukwu redshirted last season. Obviously, the rotation will continue to evolve as the season progresses, but for now, here’s a depth chart.
DE: Will Clarke—Sr.
2. Eric Kinsey—So.
3. Dontrill Hyman-Jr.
NT: Shaq Rowell—Sr.
2. Imarjaye Albury—rFr.
DT: Christian Brown—So.
2. Kyle Rose—So.
The Mountaineers will need to replace Josh Francis and Terence Garvin at linebacker. Francis leaves open the BUCK position. It’s one of the most wide open spots on the defense. There are three players competing for the starting role this fall. Jewone Snow returns from injury to try and capture the spot. Arizona Western Community College standout d’Vante Henry could make an impact at the BUCK position as well. Last season he led Arizona Western in tackles (55), solo tackles (23) and assisted tackles (32). He’s a big time talent that could certainly have a breakout season.
At the STAR linebacker position, junior Shaq Petteway and junior Wes Tonkery will battle for the starting nod. They’ll need to replace departed senior Terence Garvin, who tied for the team lead in sacks a season ago with 4.5. The STAR position is essentially a hybrid spot in the 3-4 scheme that WVU uses to either rush the passer or drop back into pass coverage. I’d look for Petteway and Tonkery to get the bulk of the time.
The WILL position returns senior Doug Rigg, he’s played in 37 career games and started 18 of them. He was moved to SAM linebacker during the spring. He’s definitely interchangeable and could play a few different positions if need be. Jared Barber returns for his junior campaign. Barber played in 12 games last season at WILL linebacker, including four starts. I’d look for Rigg and Barber to share time this season, we all know what kind of depth is needed for Big 12 play, so it should be a plus.
At SAM linebacker, one of WVU’s top defensive players, sophomore Isaiah Bruce, returns to claim his spot and will be a starter. Bruce is becoming a top notch player and should lead the linebackers this season. True freshman Al-Rasheed Benton has a chance to be very good and looks like an explosive tackler on tape. Also, Nick Kwiatkoski is a guy that can play all over the field, he’ll get his share of chances.
I took a stab at putting together a depth chart below. Keep in mind many of these players could be switched around before finally settling at a position.
BUCK: Jewone Snow—Jr.
2. d’Vante Henry—Jr.
3. Brandon Golson—Jr..
STAR: Shaq Petteway—Jr.
2. Wes Tonkery—Jr.
3. Nick Kwiatkoski-So.
WILL: Jared Barber—Jr.
2. Doug Rigg-Sr.
3. Darrien Howard—Fr.
SAM: Isaiah Bruce—So.
2. Al-Rasheed Benton—Fr.
Two true freshmen could see playing time this season. Darrien Howard and Al-Rasheed Benton are both big time prospects. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either one break through.
The Mountaineers must improve on pressuring the quarterback, tipping passes at the line of scrimmage, and creating turnovers in order for this season is to be an improvement over the last.