Fourth-Year Senior Gets First Career Start
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Three years and thirty-two games.
That’s how long Xavier Preston’s upcoming initial career start has taken. The newly-minted first-teamer at sam linebacker, Preston beat out fellow upperclassmen Hodari Christian for the spot atop the depth chart, and will be among the trio of linebackers taking the first snaps against Virginia Tech.
“I wouldn’t say I’m nervous; I just know it’s a big step,” Preston said. “I have to respect that and go in there with a clear mind.”
There’s a tendency to overplay the hand in these situations, abandon the fundamentals and start pressing while trying to do too much – and far more than what’s asked in the scheme of the defense. But Preston figures to have those proclivities vanished via his experience, with the nearly three dozen games played and a solid stat line of 31 tackles, four for loss, with a sack.
“It’s my first start, so I can’t overdo it,” Preston said. “Just gotta go out and play like coach (Tony) Gibson has been teaching us. It took awhile. But I’m prepared now. It’s the right time for me. I couldn’t rush it. I wasn’t prepared, wasn’t ready. Now’s the time, and I have to take full advantage of it.”
A look at Preston’s initial seasons in the program indicated the Stuart, Fla. native would have reached this rung on the depth chart ladder a bit quicker. The lanky 6-foot-2, 240 pounder played in nine games as a true freshman in 2014, when West Virginia was in its building phase within the Big 12. He saw action in all 13 games as a sophomore, forgoing any idea of a redshirt season and finishing with 18 tackles in reserve duty.
But it was difficult to push aside Justin Arndt at the strongside linebacker spot, with the West Virginia native being heralded for his physicality, athleticism and nose for the ball. Arndt was guilty of doing to Preston what opposing offenses couldn’t do to him, which was block, in this case keeping a younger player from taking the starting role. Preston played, of course, seeing action in 10 games and getting snaps on defense and special teams. His first career sack came at Oklahoma State, and one assumed the heir apparent would grasp the starting slot easily over the offseason.
Yet Preston was pushed again, this time by Christian in a battle that saw the position as among the last penned in to the depth chart released earlier this week. There, alongside longtime starter Al-Rasheed Benton in the middle, and freshman Dylan Tonkery at will, was Preston’s. He will be one of six WVU defenders making their first start at the collegiate level. Two others have just one start.
“First game for a lot of guys,” Preston said. “We have been waiting on this for a long time. As far as emotions, that is going to flow naturally. We are all ‘dawgs.’ We just go out there and fight. It’s the way we were taught, the way we play everyday.”
Like Virginia Tech, West Virginia was ranked in both preseason polls, with the Mountaineers coming in ahead of the Hokies in the Coaches, with the results switched in the Associated Press poll. But unlike WVU, Tech’s defense is getting massive praise while the Mountaineers scrounge for scraps.
“I believe in my guys whether we are on or off the (Top 25) list,” Preston said. “I don’t care about that list. It’s nice to be on there, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate it. But I believe in my guys 100 percent. I am out there with them everyday and I see what they are about when we talk about what we want to accomplish. I see the commitment from those guys, and I have the same as well.
“I’m not worried about Virginia Tech. I let coach Gibby worry about that. He gets us prepared. I think we are capable of handling it. We don’t compare ourselves to anybody. We go out there and play football, no matter who it is, no matter where we are.”
Even against an second old Big East rival in as many games, the Mountaineers running the slate of Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl to end last year and Virginia Tech in the season opener in the one final go-around for Preston.
“We didn’t like the way it ended last year. We are ready to come out and play football,” Preston said. “The game itself is evident, what goes into it. As far as previous history, the coaches didn’t have to do much. The rivalry matters mostly after the game. People say stuff. But once you are out there it doesn’t matter who you are playing, you are trying to get a win. Those guys we are playing are trying to get a win as well. It’s going to be a clash of heads.”