Gibson On WVU’s Defense: ‘We’re Going To Be Fine’
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — You would think that after losing two defensive linemen to graduation (Jon Lewis and Xavier Pegues) and four underclassmen who departed for various reasons (Lamont McDougle, Adam Shuler, Jalen Harvey and Jaleel Fields), West Virginia’s defensive coordinator Tony Gibson would be panicking about the state of his d-line this coming season.
Despite all that attrition, though, WVU’s fifth-year defensive coordinator is fairly confident when looking at his defensive front for 2018.
“We’ve established that we have five guys coming out of spring that we feel confident in,” explained Gibson. “We’re going to be adding three or four more here in June that we feel can play. Some of them are young, and some are old. Some of them are unknown still. But I think we may be deeper at that that position than at any time since I’ve been here.”
That final sentence is a pretty significant one.
Since returning to WVU in 2013, Gibson has seen plenty of good defensive linemen, including some who have gone on to spend time in the NFL, like Will Clarke, Shaq Riddick and Noble Nwachukwu. But depth has rarely been an asset West Virginia’s defensive front has enjoyed.
And while it’s still way too early to state with any real surety that Gibson’s confidence in its depth will hold true in the fall, it’s understandable where he’s headed if you peek behind the curtain.
Coming out of the recently-concluded spring practice, the Mountaineers’ starting defensive line consists of junior Reese Donahue and senior Ezekiel Rose at the ends with sophomore Darius Stills at noseguard. Behind them sophomore Jeffery Pooler is gaining trust as a defensive end, and senior Brenon Thrift, a transfer from Penn State, appears a capable backup at the nose.
Those are the five who have earned Gibson’s confidence as spring practice wrapped up. If that were the end of the defensive line picture, though, WVU’s coaching staff truly would be worried right now. But there are more big and potentially capable bodies coming to help the Mountaineers up front.
Three current high schoolers – Dante Stills, James Gmiter and Tyrese Allen – have signed with West Virginia, and any or all of them appear to have the potential to help WVU in the d-line depth department as true freshmen this coming fall.
And West Virginia is also dipping in to the grad transfer pool, searching for a defensive lineman or two capable of providing immediate help.
It’s already landed one of those, recently signing Kenny Bigelow, who is transferring from USC to West Virginia and who will be eligible this fall.
“He’ll be an inside guy,” Gibson said of the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Bigelow, who is a former five-star recruit from Elkton, Md. “We need two or three nose guards to rotate in and out. You can’t play nose guard every snap in this defense and hold up for a full game, because you’re double- and triple-teamed all the time. We’ve got to get bigger in there, and we thought Kenny was perfect for what we wanted. He’s a great fit.”
A product of Eastern Christian Academy, where he was a teammate of former Mountaineers Daikiel Shorts and Wendell Smallwood as well as current WVU receiver David Sills, that connection aided in landing Bigelow the second time around.
“Sills, Daikiel, Wendell, all those guys helped us get him,” noted Gibson of Bigelow’s recruitment. “I wish he had come here out of high school. But he’s coming at the right time now. It’s a position of need for us, and he’ll be able to fill some holes.”
Having suffered a pair of season-ending knee injuries during his time at USC, Bigelow has been granted a rare sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, which he’ll use at WVU to wrap up his college career.
“He’s working out with Wendell and his high school coach now, and his knees seem good,” stated Gibson. “I think what happens is that when you get hurt, and then get hurt again, you don’t know how much the coaches have confidence in you. So you look around for a fresh start somewhere else. We’ve had success with those types of guys. Hopefully he’ll be a great story.”
There’s little doubt in Gibson’s mind that Bigelow will be healthy and ready to go when the 2018 season begins.
“He’s going to play,” Gibbie said. “We’re going to count on him to come in from day one and give us help somewhere in our two-deep or three-deep. We’re going to play them all.”
West Virginia hopes to add yet another grad transfer to its defensive line to help its 2018 rotation. Jabril Robinson, a 6-foot-2, 270-pound defensive tackle from Clemson, visited WVU this past weekend and could be the final piece to that puzzle, though he hasn’t announced his decision yet.
Add the returnees, the incoming freshmen and the transfers together all together and you get a total of at least nine defensive linemen who appear capable of playing for the Mountaineers this coming fall, with Robinson being a potential 10th. Suddenly Gibson’s statement about depth doesn’t appear so farfetched, especially in comparison to the past couple of seasons when West Virginia’s defensive line rotation rarely went past five deep.
While many look further down the depth chart, the names at the top of the two-deep are ultimately the most important. Donahue led all WVU defensive linemen in tackles last year with 40 stops. The 6-foot-4, 271-pound third-year junior from Ona, W.Va., started all 13 games last season after seeing action as a heavily-used backup in 12 contests as a true freshman the season before. Rose moved from a backup role into the starting lineup at the defensive end opposite Donahue towards the latter half of last season. The 6-foot-2, 275-pound senior from Clarksdale, Miss., topped all Mountaineers in sacks in 2017 with 4.5. In the middle, Stills is the least experienced of WVU’s current defensive line starters, though the 6-foot-1, 288-pounder from Fairmont, W.Va., played in nine games last year as true freshman.
“He is definitely a leader up front,” Gibson said of Rose. “He is a very vocal guy, high energy guy, always smiling and always doing stuff the right way. We look to him for leadership and just playmaking. By the end of last year, he was one of our most productive guys up front.
“Zeke is a guy who is hard to block one-on-one,” added Gibbie. “He’s got good size to go with his pop. Coach (Bruce) Tall and I were talking the other day, and we said Zeke has a lot of Noble in him. Noble (who is now with the Seattle Seahawks) was here for five years, where Zeke has been here two years. But you can see him coming along. He’s got pop, and he can run. We like where he’s at.”
Now West Virginia’s defensive line – and the team as a whole – heads into the postspring portion of their year. Don’t think the next several months will include a lot of time hanging out on the beach, though.
“We have two more countable weeks right now, and then we have about six weeks of discretionary, and then we get back in the picture in June, and we will push them hard,” explained Gibson in relation to the upcoming workout schedule. “Those guys will be ready. After last season, I wanted the (defensive) line bigger, and within a month and half, they are all a lot bigger. Some guys 20 pounds, some guys 15. (WVU’s strongth staff) will get them how we want them. I’m looking forward to starting this thing up in August.
“I am probably more excited about this year coming up than any year that I have been a coordinator just for the fact that we have so many pieces back,” he concluded. “I know a lot of people worry about who is not here or who is hurt, but we’re going to be fine.”