By Brian McCracken
You have probably heard the old expression, “It’s crazy how much can change in a year.”
The adage is used to describe a plethora of situations and scenarios, but it seems to hold a little more weight in the world of sports.
In college football the expression could very well be, “It’s crazy how much can change in a couple of months.”
If you don’t believe me just ask West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, who is again retooling a unit that lost a dozen lettermen and eight starters, as well as an assistant coach, after a successful 2016 campaign.
The most unexpected news of the offseason came shortly after National Signing Day when cornerbacks coach Blue Adams took a step down to return to his home state and join Charlie Strong’s staff at the University of South Florida. In 2016 Adams put together one of the most impressive coaching jobs on the staff when he took over an inexperienced position group and churned out one of the better (if not the best) units in the Big 12.
When Gibson learned of Adams’ departure, he made his first call to Tuscaloosa to interview Alabama graduate assistant Doug Belk. While Belk’s name wasn’t widely known by fans and media members across the Mountain State, the young coach had already made quite a reputation inside coaching circles throughout the country.
“I heard coach Belk’s name from a friend in coaching probably six months ago,” explained Gibson. “As every coach does, you always have a shortlist of coaches in case a guy would leave, and I called (Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt) and (Alabama head coach Nick Saban) and had a great talk with both of them. Doug comes highly recommended. We brought him in for an interview that was supposed to last for 24 hours, and 72 hours later he hadn’t went home, so we hired him. He was just a guy that we felt fit, and he did a great job of explaining X’s and O’s. He also had a great recruiting plan, and we thought he would be a great fit for our staff.
“Any time you can sit in a room where Coach Saban is coaching for three years, that’s huge,” added Gibson. “(Saban) is one of the best defensive minds in football at any level. For Doug to be able to have that experience is excellent. It wasn’t only that. He has also coached in Division II (at Valdosta State), and they were very successful. He won a national championship as a coach at Valdosta, and he ran his own room and has been in front of kids. He’s 30 years old, and he can relate to these kids. We want a guy who has been there and done that, and we want guys who have done that in our program.”
The fact that Belk has had a pair of successful stints and spent the last couple of seasons learning under the tutelage of Pruett and Saban is impressive, but Gibson seemed just as giddy that the Valdosta, Ga., native can help the Mountaineers get into the fertile recruiting grounds of Georgia.
“We love high school football players from the state of Georgia,” Gibson said with a smile. “Every guy we have ever had at West Virginia from Georgia has had a lot of success. We haven’t had a lot of misses (from Georgia), whether it’s Adam Jones or Bruce Irvin or Jeremy Tyler. Those guys kind of stick out to you because they have played a lot of football here and two of them are still playing in the NFL.”
Much like Adams a year ago, Belk will be tasked with rebuilding an inexperienced cornerback group. Outside of Elijah Battle and Syracuse grad transfer Corey Winfield, none of West Virginia’s corners have taken meaningful snaps at the major college level. Both players are seniors, so it imperative that the young coach develops quality depth and competition in the coming months.
While Belk is the only new assistant on the defensive side of the football, former special teams coordinator Mark Scott will shift his focus to the defense in 2017. The special teams units will now be overseen by Holgorsen, Spavital and Gibson, and Scott will be Gibson’s right hand man in game preparation and in the booth on Saturdays.
“Mark will help me with the linebackers,” noted Gibson. “He has done a great job on game day since when he was a G.A. He was kind of the voice up there and the eyes for me with certain things. I need him to identify certain things to make a call, and he was really good at that. I’m really excited to get him back and to have him be more involved with the defense. That’s kind of how it all started.”
Outside of coaching turnover and assignment changes, Gibson’s focus in recruiting will change as well. While the Boone County native spent the last few years recruiting Western Pennsylvania, he will now shift his attention to the state of West Virginia, which has seen a boom of talent in the past several years and is becoming a focal point for Power 5 programs around the country.
“It means a lot (to recruit his home state),” said Gibson. “I can sell a lot here and it’s not B.S. and it’s not lies. I’m from here, and I’m obviously coaching here, and it’s a special place. When I go into a school or go into a home, I know a majority of the people. I think that part is good for us and the other part is that these in-state kids are getting offers from other Big 12 teams and SEC teams, so we have to get a hold on our state and we have said it from day one – if they’re good enough to help us win football games then we’re going to recruit them. It doesn’t matter who has or hasn’t offered. We’re going to put all of our efforts into keeping our kids home and trying to get them to help us win football games.”
On the field, the Mountaineers will return just three starters (four if you count the return of free safety Dravon Askew-Henry, who missed last season with a knee injury) on its defense in 2017. But the good news is that Gibson is entering his fourth season as West Virginia’s defensive coordinator. There is an obvious comfort level between Gibson, his fellow coaches and his returning players and everyone in his unit should be more than familiar with their assignments within the 3-3-5 odd stack alignment.
It seems like just yesterday when many said the Mountaineers’ defense wouldn’t be able to replace Nick Kwiatkowski, Jared Barber, K.J. Dillon and Karl Joseph, but Gibson’s unit proved that narrative to be false a year ago. This spring the Mountaineers are searching for replacements for Noble Nwachukwu, Darrien Howard, Christian Brown, Justin Arndt, Rasul Douglas, Maurice Fleming, Jarrod Harper and Jeremy Tyler, but there are plenty of options who have played a lot of football for the Mountaineers. Think Adam Shuler, Jaleel Fields, Reese Donahue, Xavier Preston, Elijah Battle and Toyous Avery. So don’t count on it being a complete rebuild in 2017.
As prep work begins for the upcoming season, it’s hard to think Gibson’s group won’t reload again. Even with the changes in personnel and some minor tweaks in coaching assignments, some things will remain constant, one of them being Gibson’s love for his home state and the job he holds.
“This is the place I want to be,” said Gibson. “I don’t want to be anywhere else in college football. I had a great opportunity to sign a three-year extension, so I hope I’ll be here for a while.”
That’s reason enough to believe the Dawgs will be just fine when they take on Virginia Tech at FedExField in the Sept. 3 season opener.