West Virginia’s Defense Faces Another Back End Rebuild – Or It It Simply A Reload?
By Greg Hunter
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Fall camp has only just begun, and the Mountaineer football team hasn’t even donned pads yet.
So getting a full evaluation at this point is impossible, especially for West Virginia’s defensive coaches, who are rebuilding a unit that lost eight starters from last year. And of the three returning first-teamers (spur Kyzir White, middle linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton and will linebacker David Long), only two are currently practicing, as Long is out for at least two more months after tearing his meniscus over the summer.
WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has another major rebuilding job on his hands, but it’s not much different than the one he faced heading into last season, when he had just two starters back from the 2015 unit. And like last year, most of the key cogs in the 2017 defense were part of the program in the past, even if they weren’t starters. On the current two deep, only Syracuse grad transfer Corey Winfield, a cornerback, was not with the club in the spring.
“We have a lot depth now, a lot of guys we’re repping,” explained Gibson. “Is it game depth? I don’t think so, but we have a lot of guys who we feel are in the right position. We just have to let them battle it out right now.
“We are going through the same format that we did last year at the start of fall camp,” WVU’s fourth-year defensive coordinator added. “We’re not going any faster or slower than we have in the past. We’re right on track with where we have been.”
One of those jobs that is up for grabs is nose guard. Xavier Pegues emerged from spring practice with the starting tag, but he’ll be challenged in camp by juniors Jaleel Fields and Jalen Harvey, and maybe even true freshman Lamonte McDougle.
“We’re repping three or four guys; may the best man win,” said Gibson of the nose guard position. “I will say I thought McDougle looked really good yesterday. He showed some good things, but we didn’t have pads on, so it was hard to tell. But I liked his explosiveness and strength. He’s got some quickness, so I liked what I saw out of him. I liked what I say out of Xavier (Pegues) when we moved him (to nose) in the spring. I thought he got a pretty good handle on it.
“We’re also going to look at Jonnie Lewis there,” added Gibson of another noseguard candidate who also plays defensive end. “Nose won’t be Jon’s primary position, but we’ll use him there if we need to. He’s played a lot there in our nickel package in the past, so it’s not really anything new.”
The loss of Long to a knee injury until at least late September has opened up the starting will linebacker position. Redshirt freshman Dylan Tonkey seems the likely candidate to step in for Long, but he’ll have some challengers as well.
“In the spring, we didn’t do a whole lot with David anyway, because we were trying to get Dylan ready,” noted Gibson. “We also have (Adam) Hensley and Quondarius Qualls at the will. We got all three of those guys valuable reps in the spring. They look good right now, but again we don’t have pads on.”
In the back end, West Virginia has a great deal of experience at the safety positions in its 3-3-5 defense. But much like last year, WVU must basically rebuild its cornerback corps.
“We have some experienced guys like Battle. And Corey Winfield brings 27 games he started when he was at Syracuse,” explained Gibson of the corners. “Hakeem Bailey was here in the spring, and we like him. And (Mike) Daniels has been here. We have four or five guys we are comfortable at the cornerback position. Again, though, we’ve only gotten through one day. As we progress through camp, let’s see how they do.”