Looking At WVU’s Position Battles – Linebacker
Outside of finding a new starting quarterback, the Mountaineers’ linebacking corps has the single biggest hole to fill.
Today we’ll look at WVU’s linebackers, as we continue our position-by-position examination of the 2019 Mountaineers.
(Note – Year of eligibility for returning players listed below is for the 2019 season, while that listed for the departing players is their 2018 class. The * indicates a newcomer who is already enrolled at WVU.)
Returning – Adam Hensley (Sr.), Quondarius Qualls (Sr.), Shea Campbell (Sr.), Brendan Ferns (Jr.), Dylan Tonkery (Jr.), Charlie Benton (Jr.), Rashon Lusane (Jr.), Zach Sandwisch (Jr.), Luke Williams (Jr.), Exree Loe (Soph.), VanDarius Cowan (Soph.), Josh Chandler (Soph.), Henry Cook (Soph.), Jake Abbott (Soph.), Jaydon McGhee (RFr.)
Departing – David Long (RJr.)
Newcomers – *Drew Joseph (Fr.), Jared Bartlett (Fr.)
Replacing David Long, the reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, is certainly going to be difficult, but defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and WVU’s new linebacker coach Blake Seiler have plenty of options at their disposal. Injuries decimated West Virginia’s linebacking corps in 2018, but other than Long, all those ‘backers return this year, and all seemingly are healthy.
Quondarious Qualls (6-1, 229 lbs., Sr.) and Brendan Ferns (6-2, 225 lbs., Jr.) each suffered knee injuries last spring. The often-injured Ferns, who also missed all of 2016 and most of 2017 because of various medical issues, did get back for the final four games in ’18, but most of his action then was limited to special teams. Qualls never did get into game action last year, thus preserving his medical redshirt status. Qualls also could be utilized in his senior season as a defensive end, which is where he spent most of his high school and junior college days. In addition, Dylan Tonkery (6-0, 222 lbs.,), Charlie Benton (6-2, 213 lbs., Jr.), Adam Hensley (6-2, 235 lbs., Sr.) and Shea Campbell (5-11, 240 lbs., Sr.) were other linebackers who also each missed various amounts of time because of injuries. Benton and Hensley will be limited in their practice work this spring as they recover from their injuries. Qualls is further along in his rehab, but he’ll likely see action at a new position this year – defensive end.
All those issues forced WVU to move JoVanni Stewart (5-8, 191 lbs., Sr.) from safety to linebacker in game two of the season. Though undersized, he thrived in his new role, ultimately finishing fourth on the team in tackles with 54 and second in tackles for lost yardage with 10.5. In the new defense, though, Stewart will likely return to safety.
Tonkery, who played in just six of WVU’s 12 games in 2018 and had 22 tackles, was West Virginia’s starting middle linebacker before suffering a pulled groin muscle midway through the season. He would play in just one game, and then for only a few snaps, the rest of the way. Benton was West Virginia’s starting Sam linebacker in the season opener against Tennessee, but a knee injury in the first quarter of that game sidelined him for the rest of the year. Campbell, a former walk-on, filled in for Tonkery as a starter at middle linebacker and recorded 40 tackles. Zach Sandwisch (6-2, 225 lbs., Jr.) eventually replaced an injured Campbell late in the regular season.
All of those returning linebackers will now be fighting for depth chart spots in Koenning’s new defense, as will Exree Loe (6-0, 217 lbs., Soph.) and Josh Chandler (5-10, 228 lbs., Soph.), as well as walk-ons Rashon Lusane (5-11, 203 lbs., Jr.), Henry Cook (6-2, 232 lbs., Soph.), Jake Abbott (6-0, 222 lbs., Soph.), Luke Williams (6-0, 232 lbs., Jr.) and Drew Joseph (5-9, 195 lbs., Fr.).
VanDarius Cowan (6-4, 235 lbs., Soph.) also will almost certainly be in the mix. A former four-star recruit from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Cowan played at Alabama as a true freshman in 2017 but was dismissed from the team in the offseason because of an off-field issue. He transferred to WVU last summer, and while he couldn’t play in games last fall because of the transfer, he was reportedly very impressive in practice. A middle linebacker in past stops, Cowan has the size and athleticism to player any number of positions.
Jared Bartlett (6-2, 216 lbs.) of Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Ga., is the only scholarship linebacker recruit WVU has signed in its class of 2019. He’ll arrive in the summer.
Previously In The Series