Defensive Line: A Major Rebuilding Job Up Front
By Brian McCracken
In 2016 a trio of seniors made up West Virginia’s starting defensive line that served as the anchor of the Mountaineer defense.
Unexpectedly, Tony Gibson’s 2016 defense had to replace eight starters from the season before but still became one of the Big 12’s best, leading the Mountaineers to a 10-win season and a Russell Athletic Bowl berth.
Seven of last year’s eight departed starters came in the linebacking corps and secondary, leaving Gibson to rely heavily on his most experienced group, his defensive line, which featured a trio of players who between them would a total of 138 games played in their WVU careers.
Now it’s the defensive line’s turn to reload, as last year’s three starters – nose guard Darrien Howard and defensive ends Christian Brown and Noble Nwachukwu – have all graduated.
Bruce Tall, West Virginia’s defensive line coach, is the man tasked with replacing that unit, and as spring practice came to a conclusion, he admitted there was still a long way to go.
“We’re not even close (to projecting a depth chart),” said Tall. “We have had new practices with all new guys. (Adam) Shuler is the only guy who has started in a game. Right now we’re really working technique stuff.”
As Tall noted, there aren’t many returning starts among the group – just one from Shuler, who filled in for an injured Nwachukwu against Texas. But there are three linemen who have played meaningful snaps in the past – Shuler, Jon Lewis and Reese Donahue. The only problem is that all three are defensive ends, and none have the body type to go inside and line up at nose guard for a lengthy period of time. Still, though, Tall has depended on Donahue and Lewis, who are both West Virginia products, to provide leadership for a group that badly needs it.
“It’s quite early, but there’s no question Jon Lewis has been around for quite a few years and he’s as hard a working young man as there is,” explained Tall. “He’s got great leadership as far as that’s concerned. He’s been around those guys and he knows what it takes. He’s prepared himself physically.”
A fifth-year senior who came to WVU as a walk-on from University High in Morgantown, Lewis has embraced that leadership role and is often seen teaching other players proper technique in spring practice.
“You have to lead by example,” said Lewis. “You have to go through things and show guys the right way to do things so they can pick them up. Even things like talking, you have to let them know things and get them ready to go.”
Although he has yet to start in a game, Lewis has played in 26 over the last three years and with the guidance of the strength staff and coaching staff feels he is primed for a big season.
“As far as knowledge of the game and technique, things have got a lot better,” explained Lewis, whose father Junius Lewis was a center for the WVU basketball team in the late ‘70s. “Being with the strength staff has physically put me in a good position. And being with Coach Tall over the last couple of years has helped me understand offenses better and understand how I’m going to get blocked before I get blocked.”
While Lewis is in his fifth year in the program, Donahue is just in his second. A product of Cabell Midland High School in Ona, W.Va., Donahue has barely been on the WVU campus 16 months, having enrolled in January of 2016 after graduating high school a semester early. But according to Tall, the second-year sophomore looks like he’s on his way to doing big things and has shown a sense of focus and maturity that is uncanny for someone who has not yet turned 19.
“You have a young player like Reese Donahue, who got a lot of snaps as a true freshman and he’s a really focused and serious young man,” Tall noted of the 6-foot-4, 264-pound defensive end who had 12 tackles last year while playing in 12 games. “He’s doing the things you want to see. He’s understanding the speed from being around it more. He’s already a very powerful young man and he understands that if he wants to be a dominating player then he needs to improve on that. He’s as focused as you can get. His (weight room) numbers are off the charts for a young kid. He’s one of those guys that is a warrior in the weight room and he’s giving you all he’s got and he’s only going to get better.”
Donahue has always been focused and exhibited a tenacious work ethic, but learning from veterans like Nwachukwu, Howard and Brown for a season has helped him grasp the best way to do things at the collegiate level.
“Every day those guys came in the weight room and came on the field and gave it their all,” recalled Donahue, who weighed 240 pounds when he first arrived at WVU last year. “They taught us how to work and to become those players and what you need to do to get where they’re at. It was good to watch them, learn from them and be around them because you gain a lot of experience from them.”
Much like Lewis, Donahue is ready to take on a leadership role with the defensive unit, but he also wants to see leadership and accountability come from the group as a whole.
“We’re all trying to be leaders,” stated the exercise physiology major. “We know that we lost a lot of guys last year that were vital and played a lot of snaps and we know we have to replace them. We don’t want one person to step up; we want everyone to step up. We want everyone to become a leader and everyone needs to become accountable.”
Barring any unforeseen injuries, the combination of Lewis, Donahue and Shuler should be enough to assure West Virginia fans that the Mountaineers will get quality play from the defensive ends in 2017 with further depth likely coming from junior college transfer Ezekiel Rose, redshirt freshman Jeffrey Pooler and former tight end Stone Wolfley.
But the cupboard is virtually bare at the nose guard spot, which is always one of the most integral positions in any odd front defense.
It looks to be a three-man competition at the nose between Jalen Harvey, Jaleel Fields and Xavier Pegues. The kicker is that none of the three played any snaps for the Mountaineers last year, as Harvey was in junior college, while both Pegues and Fields underwent season-ending surgeries last summer.
While he was primarily recruited as a defensive end, Pegues has impressed Tall with his versatility and ability to man both the end spot and go inside and play nose. Brown did the same thing a season ago and often spelled Howard in the middle of WVU’s d-line.
“(Pegues) is doing a really nice job,” said Tall. “We’re happy to have him back. He’s a very powerful young man, and he’s focused and doing a great job. We’re really excited about him. He’s the one guy who has played both (nose guard and defensive end). He can play either/or.”
In the fall West Virginia will add a pair of freshmen in Darius Stills and Lamonte McDougle. Due to the grueling physical requirements of playing defensive line at the FBS level, playing a true freshman in the trench can be problematic. But to help WVU’s depth up front, at least one of those two youngsters may get thrown into the fire next fall.
Tall hopes to develop a defensive line that can go three deep at all three positions. But no matter what, it’s going to be a very inexperienced unit.
“It’s a young group,” admitted Tall. “All of them are in the feeling out process of ‘how do I take that role on’ and it’s not typical a natural thing for such young players. I think it will come as they get more comfortable.”