Bandit: Same Name, New Position At WVU
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Take the terminology you learned from West Virginia’s old 3-3-5 odd stack defense and flush much of it down the toilet.
One of the unique names does remain from the past, but the bandit position from the old days is entirely different from the new one in Vic Koenning’s defense.
The bandit in the odd stack was a safety, paired with a spur and a free in a three-safety alignment.
The bandit now is part defensive end, part linebacker and 100 percent critical.
“That position is really, really important to what we do,” said Koenning, WVU’s first-year defensive coordinator who ran the same scheme while the D.C. for Neal Brown at Troy. “If you look at the history of the bandit position in this defense, there have been seven NFL guys. The last two years we had all-conference guys at the bandit. The year before that it was a defensive player of the year.
“I’ve also had years where I played for conference championships where our bandits weren’t very good and we didn’t ask them to do a bunch of stuff.”
There are a lot of differences in West Virginia’s old defense and its new one, but none more so than the bandit position.
“The one spot that wasn’t in their defense last year was that bandit position,” explained Brown. “That’s a hybrid outside linebacker who can rush off the edge and also drop and play in coverage. That’s the one defensive position we’re still trying to figure out. That the one position that wasn’t on the roster before.”
West Virginia’s 3-3-5 also didn’t use a traditional passing rushing defensive end either. Instead its three d-linemen all tended to be bulkier run-stuffers with blitzing linebackers and safeties responsible for generating much of the pass rush.
But the new staff was fortunate that the old one had recruited some body types who easily fit into the defensive end role, like juco transfer Taijh Alston (6-4, 252 lbs., Jr.) and Tavis Lee (6-2, 252 lbs., RFr.). Then Brown’s group moved one interior lineman (Jeffery Pooler) to the edge and recruited a grad transfer (Reuben Jones from Michigan) who also fit the position, and suddenly the defensive end spot seems pretty well stocked.
“If you look at it, Taijh Alston is a true five technique, a defensive end, and they didn’t really play with that in the past,” noted Brown. “Then Reuben Jones is that as well, and we slimmed down Pooler (from 295 to 255) to get him to be a five technique.”
But finding bandits has been a different proposition.
“I’m not saying we haven’t found them, but we’re still trying to get the guys we have there better,” explained Koenning. “We’re still not anywhere near where we want to be.”
West Virginia’s current bandits all have linebacker background. Quondarius Qualls (6-1, 240 lbs., Sr.) was a sam linebacker for WVU in 2017, but missed all but one game last season because of a knee injury. VanDarius Cowan (6-4, 235 lbs., Soph.) was a middle linebacker in high school and as a true freshman at Alabama before transferring to West Virginia in the summer of 2018. He continued to practice at linebacker until switching over to bandit late this past spring. Zach Sandwisch (6-2, 231 lbs., Jr.) and Adam Hensley (6-2, 232 lbs., Jr.) also were both former middle linebackers who are transitioning to bandits, and true freshman Jared Bartlett (6-2, 210 lbs.) was a high school linebacker who is being groomed to be a bandit of the future.
All are new to the position, which wasn’t part of WVU’s defense in the past but is integral to Koenning’s scheme.
“Charlie Bailey is the first guy to give me a job, and he’s actually from Poca, the Poca Dots,” Koenning said of the West Virginia native who is the former Memphis State (1986-88) and UTEP (1993-99) head coach. “I remember he said that you get your not-so-good players to use up the blockers, so your good players can make the tackles. That sounds pretty simple. I’m not saying we use our bandits to use up the blockers. We want other teams to try to find that position. That position needs be a playmaker.”
While Koenning was leading the Brown’s defense at Troy, the Trojans were near the top of the FBS ranks in sacks recent years, and a good bit of that pressure came from the bandits.
In 2018, Troy finished with 39 sacks, which was the 10th best mark in the FBS, and it got 7.5 sacks from its starting bandit, Hunter Reese, and another 4.5 from his backup, Antoine Barker.
The year before in 2017, Reese recorded 6.5 sacks as the starting bandit, and his backup, Zo Bridges had 2.5, as the team finished with 42 sacks, the seventh best number in the nation.
Reese, who was 6-foot-1 and 234 pounds, was a two-time first-team all-Sun Belt selection who began his career at Troy as a walk-on after having his only scholarship offer coming out of high school, from FCS Murray State, pulled shortly before signing day.
He turned into a two-time all-conference player at bandit, and now Koenning is looking for similar stories at WVU.
“I’m getting better, but there is always room for improvement,” said Sandwisch in regard to making the move to bandit. “My thinking is that you’ve never really made it; you always have to keep working.”
“This scheme fits me,” added Qualls, who flipped over from defensive end to bandit early in fall camp. “I can come off the edge or drop back in coverage. I can do either.
“I’ve got to work hard and make big plays,” added Qualls. “That’s what they’re looking for; someone to make big plays.”
Overall West Virginia’s bandit and its entire defensive front must hold up, because it is inexperienced at the safety positions.
“Our d-line has got to be a force,” stated Koenning. “We do a lot of things to give them edges and angles to stop the run. The thing that we have to do is that it has to be a ‘we’ deal. If we have a d-lineman playing more than 40 snaps a game, than we’re not doing what we need to do. We’re trying to develop the develop depth.”