Openings On All Three Levels Of Defense Creating Competition
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia hasn’t gotten into the nuts and bolts of its spring drills yet.
In fact, the Mountaineers are just now assembling what they will be on all thee sides of the ball. That’s especially true on defense, where coordinator Tony Gibson must replace a defensive end, middle linebacker and spur safety, along with at least one starting corner slot should Hakeem Bailey manage to hold down the other.
There have been a series of position moves to, well, help position the team better through the first five spring practices. Perhaps foremost, WVU slid Dylan Tonkery from the starting strongside linebacker slot to the middle. That serves as a solid, experienced replacement for the departed Al-Rasheed Benton, but it also pushes fellow mike ‘backer Brenden Ferns to the second team depth chart.
Ferns is more of a pure middle linebacker than Tonkery, and would have a more difficult time sliding outside. As the redshirt sophomore comes off a shoulder surgery, he remains an unproven commodity within the odd stack, and how much Ferns can press Tonkery for the starting spot will go a long way in determining if the Bridgeport, W.Va. native remains in the middle or slides back outside.
“I think he is a big, physical strong kid,” Gibson said of Tonkery, who made 43 tackles, 6.5 for loss, as a freshman last season. “He understands the defense now. With David (Long) at will and him at mike, (Quondarius) Qualls and (Charlie) Benton also fit that same mold we have been looking for: Big, athletic, can play in space a little better and match-up on tight ends and slot receivers.”
There’s no question that Long will man the starting weakside spot when he returns from shoulder surgery. Of now, West Virginia has junior Adam Hensley at the slot. At 6-foot-2, 232 pounds, Hensley is a long athlete who has appeared in 20 career games. Qualls and Benton are battling at sam, and will be pushed by Exree Loe when the redshirt freshman returns from a pectoral injury.
Along the front, Reese Donahue returns at one end, while line coach Bruce Tall feels comfortable with Ezekiel Rose at the opposite slot in filling in the former role of Adam Shuler. Shuler left to pursue a discus career, and his athleticism, if not production, left a hole along a line with just five scholarship players this spring. In an effort to make the unit as versatile as possible exiting spring, Tall has forced every player except Rose to learn both end and nose. Of now, Darius Stills and Benton Thrift are battling for prime time on the inside until he return of Lamonte McDougle, who also comes off shoulder surgery.
“I like where we are. I like our guys,” Gibson said. “We have nine guys, with three or four walk-on guys getting a lot of good reps. They are giving great effort. Still don’t really know from a tackling standpoint, which is our man emphasis this spring.”
WVU hasn’t yet gone to a fully padded practice in an effort to be methodical in the installation. That’s helped some of the more inexperienced players, especially at corner. Bailey, who played in 11 games last year with 32 tackles, is at the left corner slot while position coach Doug Belk rolls in others at right. Those include Derrek Pitts, who moved from safety, as well as Michigan transfer Keith Washington and Sean Mahone, who enters his third season in the program.
Belk said he believed Washington and Mahome were ready to contribute, but Bailey is the one to eye early as the junior tries to build upon an up-and-down season from a year ago. Jake Long and Kevin Williams, a pair of 5-foot-11 players between 192 and 200 pounds, are running behind Bailey at the left side, while Pitts has the early edge on the right in what’s considered a more natural position for the 6-0, 18o-plus pounder.
“It’s been hard for him to put weight,” Gibson said of Pitts. “He’s 185 pounds and runs well. Give him a shot and let him try and win the job in the spring and see what happens. I like how he is progressing.”
Gibson has kept Kenny Robinson at free safety, while Dravon Askew-Henry, a two-plus year starter on the back end, drops down to the spur spot vacated by the graduation of Kyzir White. That fills a hole, but lessens the size there as Askew-Henry (6-0, 200 lbs.) is two inches shorter and 18 pounds lighter than White, who figures to be drafted by the NFL. The bandit slot is manned by senior Toyous Avery, who has played in 19 career games, starting six.
“Dravon has played a lot of football,” Gibson said. “He has more starts (39 in as many games played) than anyone else on the team. He ha a good understanding of the defense. We could move him anywhere. Spur, bandit, free. But I just think he gives us that cover guy we need in the slot as well.”
WVU continued with drills on Tuesday, and will practice again Thursday, making it six sesssions before breaking from March 10-17.
“We do a tackling circuit every day,” Gibson said. “We have four different stations and we have hit that every single day. We are not tackling to the ground right now, which is good. It’s good for our teaching progression and how we want to get it done with no pads on. We call it a tracking drill, really. You see bad technique taking guys on the ground. It’s a work in progress, but we have 10 more practices to make sure we are doing it the right way.”