Continuity Missing For WVU Defense
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Just how difficult has building continuity been for the West Virginia defense? Consider this: The Mountaineers had just three players on the field in the third quarter against Iowa State that started against and were playing the same position they did in the opener against Virginia Tech. Defensive end Reese Donahue, middle linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton and spur Kyzir White are in the spots they manned back on Sept. 3, but that’s it. Here’s how the rest of the lineup morphed from the VT game to the second half of the Iowa State win:
|Nose Tackle||Xavier Pegues||Lamonte McDougle|
|End||Adam Shuler||Ezekiel Rose|
|Will LB||Dylan Tonkery||David Long|
|Sam LB||Xavier Preston||Dylan Tonkery|
|Bandit||Toyous Avery||Dravon Askew-Henry|
|Cornerback||Hakeem Bailey||Elijah Battle|
|Cornerback||Mike Daniels||Hakeem Bailey|
|Free Safety||Dravon Askew-Henry||Kenny Robinson|
Some of these don’t look like big switches. After all, Bailey was the starter in game one, so flipping over to sub in for Daniels shouldn’t be a big deal, right? That should also apply to Tonkery – what’s the big difference between to linebacker positions? And a safety is a safety, isn’t it?
The answer? Not exactly. Sure, there are similar techniques at those positions, but assignments can often vary greatly. The sam linebacker spot usually requires a bigger body more suited to run support, while the will gets a bit more against the pass. The same is true for the spur and the bandit. And at corner, it’s different playing with the sideline off your left side, then suddenly flipping to the opposite side where it’s the right.
Also keep in mind that in the games between the opener and Iowa State, there has been more shuffling and more players out due to injury for all or parts of games. There hasn’t been a contest where the Mountaineers have finished with the lineup it started with, or with a close approximation of what its best 11 on the field might be. Tony Gibson’s opinion on that has obviously had to change over the two months of the season – some players have improved and worked their way into the lineup, while others have stalled or regressed.
Not having players available is bad enough, but the absences have crushed the hoped-for development of the defense as a whole. Had WVU been able to put the same, or at least a similar, lineup on the field through the first eight games, it would have been able to build synergy and continuity, as defensive coordinator Tony Gibson wanted. Now?
“I just told them to go play hard,” Gibson said of his pregame preparation for Iowa State.
That they did — and it overcame all of the problems that come along with massive substitutions and player unavailability. It started in practices the past week, which were a bit different.
“We went back to how we have been practicing,” linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton said. “A lot of good on good, a little more hitting. The way we practiced was good.”
While there were still mistakes made, the attitude stemming from the week’s approach was different. Benton noted that “a lot more guys bought in” during the preparations, and that had to have helped when the lineup was again shuffled. It was a mental issues as much or more than a physical one, but the belief helped lead to better performance.
“I never once lost confidence in my team. I never once lost confidence in this defense,” Benton emphasizes.” Guys may need to get their [confidence] up and trust and believe in what they can do. I think a lot more guys bought in this weekend, and you see what they can do.”
Is that enough to overcome the avalanche of injuries? The next two opponents, Kansas State and Texas, aren’t offensive juggernauts on the order of the Oklahomas, so there is some optimism there. A week of players returning to the lineup could also help — Gibson hinted that the play of some of the backups might help in that regard — but it may be the buy-in, the approach and the confidence level that is the key during November’s remaining games.