Tonkery Fills Gaps In WVU Defense
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — WVU linebacker Dylan Tonkery’s heady play has helped elevate him into a starting role at not one, but two positions on the Mountaineer defense in 2017. Filling in for the injured David Long at the will linebacker in the first four games of the season, Tonkery played well beyond his redshirt freshman status, recording 15 tackles, a sack, and a fumble recovery.
When Long returned, Tonkery dropped to a back-up role, but was he didn’t let that affect his play or his mindset. He continued to perform well on special teams, and when sam linebacker Xavier Preston went down with an injury against Oklahoma State, it was Tonkery that was selected to replace him.
That he could do so, especially at this young stage of his career, is notable. Just learning the intricacies of one position is difficult enough, but “Tonk” has shown a remarkable aptitude for learning assignments. As for his play on the field, it shouldn’t be surprising — older brother Wes was also an underrated player who emerged as a standout performer for the Mountaineers. Wes, like Dylan, got his first chance due to injury, as he became a starter for WVU in the 2012 Orange Bowl. It took him a bit longer to move on to more starting roles, but during his senior year he piled up 45 tackles, including 10.5 for losses.
Tonkery downplayed the difference between the two positions.
“Most of it is the same either way. It’s just different coverage-wise. There is not really that big of a difference.”
That’s a big simplification, though. The sam backer is usually confronted with more blockers and must stand up to more pounding against the run, while the will has some more pass coverage responsibilities. While he is correct that the basic functions are the same, not everyone can just flip from one side to the other. Tonkery, at 220-some pounds, is at the smaller end of what teams would like to deploy at the sam spot, but he makes up for it by avoiding blocks and being in the right place at the right time. He describes one such instance of that in the opening moments of the interview below, when he discusses his read and reaction on a first quarter Iowa State swing pass where he deflected the ball to teammate Al-Rasheed Benton.
The straight-forward West Virginia native also downplayed some of the hype around last week’s more physical practices, noting that it really consisted of just one day of more heavily-padded work. He got to the core of the switch by noting it was more a mental than a physical challenge.
“Usually in the weeks before, in Tuesday’s practice we would go in spider pads. They’re not shoulder pads, they are just a little bit of padding. We don’t hit a lot, but we hit a little bit. Then this past week we changed it. We went shoulder pads two days in a row. That probably had a big difference on us because we were able to hit on Tuesday and Wednesday instead of just Wednesday. So, that made it a little bit different. We did it all last year though. Every time we are wearing spider pads it’s always our fastest practice.”
Tonkery’s presence gives WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson some options — items that he hasn’t enjoyed much at all in 2017. Although David Long isn’t going to come off the field unless he’s injured, Tonkery stands by to relieve him. He can start at sam again if Preston is still unavailable, but can also share time with him in the event the senior struggles. In a year in which Gibson has pulled about every personnel combination possible out of his coaching schemes, Tonkery has been a life-saver.