MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As West Virginia football prepares itself for its third season under coach Neal Brown, it does so fully aware that this is not the game Brown played in high school, or at Kentucky and Massachusetts as an undergraduate in college.
It isn’t even the same game it was when he began coaching. It’s changed, with speed, size, strength, and computers that leave no stone unturned.
Gone, for example, is the stud you used to remember at middle linebacker. Gone is the three-man defensive front. Gone is 3-4-4 defense.
All of it dictated by offenses that have made a complete change, turning what once was a power game into a game of finesse, of trying to play in space and create confusion.
Football no longer plays the game the way it did when Earl Campbell or O.J. Simpson toted the ball, or Peyton Manning or Dan Marino threw it.
That became obvious Friday when listening to a couple Mountaineer defensive assistants — Jeff Koonz, who handles the inside linebackers and special teams, and ShaDon Brown, a newcomer from Louisville who is the co-defensive coordinator and the safeties coach.
Brown, a gregarious and enthusiastic addition to Neal Brown’s staff, sort of summed up what they were trying to say as only a defensive coach can.
“About 18 years ago football made a shift, and it made a shift to this RPO (run/pass option) thing, what I like to call ‘offensive cheating,’” Brown explained with his tongue only partially in cheek. “You get these offensive linemen and they run block all the way down the field further than they should be. Then the quarterback throws the pass.”
It begins with the QB putting the ball into the stomach of the running back, leaving it if he has the numbers up front, pulling it out if he doesn’t. He then has options to throw the ball to a group of receivers spread across the field or, if nothing is open, to pull the ball down and run it.
It changed the game.
“What had happened was you had to be stout enough to stop the run if they ran it, but you needed an extra cover guy if they throw it out on the perimeter because it becomes more of a space game,” Brown said. “So, people took the old-school Sam linebacker out in 4-3 scheme and added a DB.
“Then you had what they call a 4-2-5 … and that fifth defensive back is what I like to call a hybrid guy, a hybrid safety who is big and strong enough to come up and stop the run if they run it, but is agile enough that if they throw the ball on the perimeter on that ‘cheating’ play the offense runs, he can go tackle the guy in space.”
That would be the “spear” in the WVU defense, a position that was supposed to be manned by Tykee Smith until he left and that will be taken over by Arizona transfer Scottie Young this season.
“(The spear) is like a Swiss Army knife,” Koonz said, repeating a popular description among Mountaineer coaches. “He has to be able do a little bit of everything. He also has to be able to go pressure the quarterback, run in man coverage and play the flat like a linebacker. Every stop I’ve been in the last six or seven years, we’ve had that position. It had a different name from place to place.”
Koonz’s reference to a Swiss Army knife also applied to the entire system.
“We are kind of a Swiss Army knife right now,” he said of West Virginia’s personnel. “We have to do so many different things within this system that we have to make sure we are accurate with our positioning within the scheme … and that’s what we’ve done best right now. We’ve had some communication things, but for the most part our missed assignments have been minimal.
“We have flashed as pass rushers. We have flashed in coverage. I think we are fitting the run better than we did at any point last year.”
Those are all positives from a defense that was one of the nation’s best last season but took some heavy damage via transfers and graduation.
Because of all the moving parts now and the deception offered on offense, the Mountaineers came into camp wanting to work on their communication on the field, which will be especially important with new parts involved.
“One of things in college football is there are no stationary targets anymore,” Koonz said. “They are going to motion. They are going to give you formations that are into the sideline. They are going to give multiple speed threats. You have to adjust your coverages and you are going to have to do it on the move.
“Communication has been emphasized. The linebackers have been doing it with the secondary. At linebacker, we talk about being the heartbeat of the defense and we have to connect the front end to the back end. Not only coverage checks, but also all the front checks to make sure we do the things we do inside.”