Shuler Must Be Prime Playmaker Along New-Look Defensive Front
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – There’s coach speak in trying to hide tendencies and knowledge from the opposition, and often times that means being equally coy with media.
But in the case of West Virginia’s defensive line, the blank look one gets when asking who exactly fits where is genuine.
“We have a long way to go,” coordinator Tony Gibson said.
Perhaps only Adam Shuler and Reese Donahue have virtually locked themselves into playing time. Donahue played last year as a true freshman, the Ona, W.Va. native seeing action in the opener against Missouri and saying that it was so thrilling he didn’t think his feet hit the ground the entire time.
Shuler, now a redshirt sophomore, played in a dozen games last year, making 33 tackles and a huge splash in that same first game against Missouri, when he tallied five solo tackles and forced a fumble. Shuler earned All-Big 12 freshman second team honors from Athlon, and has the range, wingspan and size at 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds to be a major force from the end spot.
After that, it turns into a mix of Xavier Pegues, Jaleel Fields, Jon Lewis and junior college transfers Ezekiel Rose and Jalen Harvey, among others. The questions leave the defensive front as the most unsettled position on the team, and put a dose of added pressure on Shuler, from whom big time play is anticipated this season.
“Hey, we’re progressing pretty well,” Shuler said. “Everybody is learning to deal with helping each other out I think we’ve had a pretty good rate of progress. The approach to building a line where we’re going to have a ton of players is to just to make sure everybody is trusting each other, everybody trusts the process and everybody can depend on each other. If I go down, then we have two or three more that can come in right after me. So, it’s just trusting each other that we can all do our jobs.”
Make no mistake, Shuler is a prime component within a scheme that loves to bring pressure, but hasn’t always finished it as well as hoped. There’s speculation he could eventually develop into an elite level rusher, though the growing pains have been quite real. Shuler recalled the game at Texas last year, when the Mountaineers jumped to a 17-3 lead before the Longhorns rallied and had a late chance at a Hail Mary to win the game.
Texas racked up 32 first downs and 536 total yards with 218 coming on the ground. It hit Shuler then that although he was largely holding his own physically – a surprise for a second-year lineman – his technique and tendency to stay with one rush approach was making him easier to block. That’s when he said he knew he had to learn the intricacies f the game, and upgrade his technical knowledge before any progression could be made.
“Finishing moves with my hands,” he said of the main focus in the offseason. “I’ve seen myself do a lot of bull rushing last year. I need to work on using my hands to finish moves. That’s what I’m working on.”
He’s also keyed in on former teammates like Christian Brown and Noble Nwachukwu. The two combined with Darrien Howard to give WVU three senior starters on the defensive line last year and create a stoutness up front that was among the reasons the Mountaineers finished second in the Big 12 in points allowed per game and first in turnovers forced. The three were highly disciplined players who understood the game’s finer points and attempted to pass that on to Shuler, Donahue and others.
“I’ve been listening to advice from coaches and some other guys that did it and been here,” Shuler said. “From time to time I talked to past players like Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown and guys that played the position. Talk to Coach (Bruce) Tall.”
But there’s no replacement for experience, as they say. While Shuler and the line have made strides over the first week of fall camp, they need significantly more full contact practice time to sharpen their fits and begin to play more fluidly, with a read-and-react style as opposed to thinking.
“As a defensive line, the biggest jump we’ve made is learning how to stay in our gaps and do our assignments,” Shuler said. “We’re doing a pretty good job of doing that. Just practice. That’s how everybody gets better. It’s a big step (to replace three starters), but who says we can’t make it? It definitely excites me. It’s not even the fact of proving everybody wrong, it’s me doing what I want to do.”