Tonkery Seizes Opportunity In Opener, Now Primed For Home Game
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The moment, as it turned out, wasn’t too big after all.
With projected starter David Long still recovering from a meniscus injury, freshman Dylan Tonkery made a strong debut at West Virginia’s weakside linebacker spot. The Bridgeport High grad made four tackles, two solo, and proved the preseason hype warranted in playing a crisp, controlled game in the opener against Virginia Tech.
The performance was so steady it even drew positive reviews from senior stalwart Al-Rasheed Benton, he of 40 career games played and 15 starts at WVU’s middle ‘backer position.
“He did a great job,” said Benton, who spent the game lined up adjacent to Tonkery in the odd stack set. “Young guy, you are going to make some mistakes. Any mistakes he made, he went out and made a play to make up for it. That’s one of the great things, that the moment wasn’t too big for him. I can see him getting better and better.”
Tonkery’s reliability in the more free-ranging of West Virginia’s trio of linebacker positions elevated him into the two deep, and the off-season injury to Long – suffered during a conditioning drill – provided an opportunity to seize a starting slot. The two-time Class AA first-team prep selection did just that, sliding ahead of sophomore Adam Hensley and holding off other challengers like junior college transfer Quondarius Qualls.
“I thought he played extremely well for his first game in that kind of atmosphere,” WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “He wasn’t rattled at all. I was very pleased with him.”
Tonkery played in excess of 70 snaps, including special teams, and will be pressed into a similar workload until the return of Long. That’s projected to come as early as the Sept. 23 Big 12 opener against Kansas, or as late as the following game, an Oct. 7 contest at TCU that follows an open week.
“I was thinking about it when they were flipping the coin that I really wanted the defense to go out first,” Tonkery said of his first career start on Sunday. “I wanted to go out there and get the first series over with because all week everyone was telling me ‘Once that first series is over you are just settled right in.’ That’s what happened: After that first series I settled in. I didn’t really pay attention to the crowd. I could really only see what was happening in front of me on the field.”
Tonkery managed two solo tackles against Virginia Tech, dropping opposing ball carriers in the open field while also finishing with 1.5 tackles for loss. Arguably the most impressive came on a third-and-one midway through the third quarter. Tonkery recognized the alignment and split a gap to make first contact with Steven Peoples. Help arrived quickly in the form of Xavier Preston, and the two wrestled People’s to the ground to force a fourth down. The Hokies missed the 38-yard field goal, and West Virginia tied it at 17-17 on the ensuing possession.
“I felt I did alright,” Tonkery said. “I new it wasn’t going to be great, being my first game ever. I made a few tackles, some open field tackles, so I was pretty happy. Probably the best decision I have ever made was leaving high school early. I gained weight a lot faster because I was able to get in here and with school it helped me get some credits in. I’m really glad I did it. If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t have moved down as fast as I did. I would probably still be a safety right now so that helped a lot.”
Now at 6-foot-2, 222 pounds, the redshirt freshman is a thicker version of his brother Wes, who played linebacker at WVU from 2011-14. Where the elder Tonkery topped out at a listed 223 pounds over a 6-1 frame, Dylan stands to add significantly more weight along with an established height edge. His enrollment in January of 2016 was key, as was the weight room dedication shown in testing out at an elite level (94 percent plus) in WVU’s workout program.
“I just really bought into Mike Joseph’s process,” Tonkery said of the Director of Strength and Conditioning. “I really like being in the weight room, I like working out, so that wasn’t a problem with me. I just went out there and played and it worked. I felt like I just bought into his process and did exactly what he told us to do.”
Almost like he does with brother Wes.
“He talks to me a lot, there’s a lot of advice from him,” Dylan said. “We play two different positions, he was sam and I’m will, but they are pretty much the same. He remembers some of the plays, but other than that it’s usually just technique, how to take on blocks and things like that.”
This weekend, Tonkery gets a chance to fulfill one more dream, stepping onto the surface at Milan Puskar Stadium for a game. The Mountaineers open the home slate against East Carolina at Noon. The best part? It’s a bit of a birthday present for Tonkery, who turns 20 on Thursday.
“I am really excited for that,” Tonkery said. “I have really, really been wanting to play here for a long time, so I’m real excited to be able to play in this stadium for the first time.”