WVU Position Glance: Linebackers
By Greg Hunter
I had a cute couple paragraphs already written. The start of my glimpse at West Virginia’s linebackers went something like this: “Like a good BBQ rub, West Virginia’s linebacking corps features a little bit of everything – from savory to sweet, from bold with age to unrefined and fresh.
“The Mountaineer linebackers show three seniors (Al-Rasheed Benton, Xavier Preston and Hodari Christian), a rising sophomore star (David Long), a quintet of promising redshirt freshmen and true sophomores (Adam Hensley, Zach Sandwisch, Brendan Ferns, Logan Thimons and Dylan Tonkery) as well as a passing rushing junior college transfer (Quondarius Qualls). The one thing they don’t have is a true freshman scholarship ‘backer, though they did take the state’s top prep linebacker, Fairmont Senior’s Jake Abbott, winner of the Chuck Howley Award given to the top high school linebacker in West Virginia each year, into walking on, so in a way, WVU even has that in the mix.”
All seemed good at that position, but then a rumor began to leak out that Long had suffered a knee injury. The severity of his knee injury still has not been revealed, so at the moment everyone around Mountaineer Field is holding their breath.
If Long is healthy for the 2017 season, then West Virgini’s linebacking corps is one of the team’s strength. Without him and it changes the makeup of the entire unit.
Even if Long remains in the mix, that doesn’t mean Mountaineers have all the ingredients from last year’s linebacking group. Justin Arndt, who was the leading tackler on the ’16 club with 84 stops, has graduated, leaving his starting Sam ‘backer spot up for grabs. Sean Walters, who started the first three games at the Will last season before giving way to Long, also has graduated. But WVU still features plenty of experienced veterans to go along with a bunch of youngsters with loads of potential.
Long and Benton are to be the leaders of this year’s linebackers. A heavily used backup the previous two seasons, Benton moved into the starting lineup last year as a junior and finished second on the team in tackles with 80. Now a 6-foot, 237-pound fifth-year season, Benton is very much the leader of this defense. As for Long, after backing up Walters in the first three games of ’16, the 5-foot-11, 228-pounder from Cincinnati took over as the starter and never looked back. He finished with 65 tackles, four and a half of which came behind the line of scrimmage. If Long is healthy, those two returnees give West Virginia a nice 1-2 combination at the Mike and Will linebacker positions.
Xavier Preston provides WVU with an experienced senior at the Sam position. The 6-foot-2, 238-pound native of Stuart, Fla., has played in 32 games over the previous three seasons, though he’s yet to start one. He has 31 career tackles but has never really cemented a spot on West Virginia’s rotation. This is his final opportunity to do so.
Preston will face competition from a bevy of young linebackers. Hensley, Sandswich, Thimons, Tonkery and Ferns all were part of the class of 2016. Hensley was the only one who avoided a redshirt last year, as he played in six games, mostly on special teams. Sandswich and Ferns likely would have seen action last season as well, but injuries forced each to take a medical redshirt. Now all five look for spots in the two deep, if not the starting lineup. Obviously Long’s status could change their playing time greatly. Hensley and Sandwisch are listed behind Preston at the Sam, while Tonkery is No. 2 at the Will behind Long. But in truth, those positions are similar enough that they can be flipped around if necessary. Qualls, a 6-foot, 216-pound junior college transfer who enrolled at WVU in January, also is working at outside linebacker. But the Farmerville, La., native has been mainly a straight-line edge rusher in the past, so he’ll have improve his ability to play in space if he wants to be an every-down back. Even with his limitations, Qualls could be a big help as a designated pass rusher.
Ferns and Thimons are middle linebackers, who are currently working behind Benton. WVU linebacker coach Tony Gibson, who is also the team’s defensive coordinator, has said he would like to keep them at the Mike if possible, though the status of Long could change that.
Wherever he lines up, it would certainly seem that Ferns is headed for significant action. That was the case last August too, when the then-true freshman from St. Clairsville, Ohio suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for the entire season. After a medical redshirt, the 6-foot-2, 236-pound former blue chip recruit seems ready for game action. If Long is healthy, Ferns likely stays in the middle and rotates with Benton. But Ferns is also athletic enough to move to an outside linebacker spot if necessary where he could challenge for a starter position right away.
Besides Thimons a 6-foot, 228-pound redshirt freshman from Sarver, Pa., West Virginia also has Hodari Christian available at middle linebacker. A 6-foot, 225-pound fifth-year season from McKeesport, Pa., Christian’s playing time to this point has come mainly on special teams, but he seems poised for game action this year. With a linebacking corps that runs up to 10 deep across the three positions, finding significant defensive snaps for everyone could be difficult. Of course, Long’s status this year will affect things significantly one way or the other.
Previously in the Series: