West Virginia Football’s Biggest Strengths In 2019: No. 8 – Linebacker Potential
(Editor’s Note – We previously took a look at West Virginia’s top 10 biggest question marks heading into the 2019 football season. In the second half of this series, we turn our attention to what we perceive to be the top 10 strengths of Neal Brown’s first Mountaineer squad.)
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8. Linebacker Potential – It might seem a bit disingenuous to lump “potential” into the strength category, but the group of players competing for the linebacker positions on the 2019 Mountaineer football team, along with their potential fits in Vic Koenning’s defensive system, are both cause for optimism. Granted, there are unproven players in this unit that must take to the task quickly, but with an anchor in the middle and excitement of playing a more attacking style, this could turn out to be a foundation for the defense.
It starts mike linebacker spot, where redshirt junior Dylan Tonkery returns from a groin injury that caused him to miss six full games and most of another in 2018. Prior to that, he had established himself as a reliable performer who was rarely out of position, but who also made decisive plays. Despite missing half the season, he was fourth on the 2018 defense in tackles for loss, and there’s no question that the WVU linebacking corps will be built outward around him.
If there was any bright spot to Tonkery’s injury, it was the fact that redshirt senior Shea Campbell garnered some experience in his stead. Starting six games, Campbell had 40 tackles, including 10 against Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl. Built of much the same cloth as Tonkery, he can provide quality backup time. There’s also a newcomer to the competition inside, as redshirt sophomore Jake Abbott impressed during the spring, bringing an aggressive attitude and enough production to put him second on the depth chart heading into fall. Raw speed might be a question for this trio, but their understanding of the game, ability to get in the right position and make the right reads consistently make them the deepest unit in this position group.
The will linebacker in Koenning’s system has some safety responsibilities depending on several factors, including the calls and coverages and the opponent being faced. That contributes to the makeup of the depth chart, which includes players from previous linebacking and safety spots – all of whom have the ability to be a factor in run support but also help against the pass.
Sophomore Josh Chandler, who played some 50 snaps as a ‘backer on last year’s team as a backup behind Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year David Long, seized the will position during spring and never let it go. Aggressive in run support and seemingly always around the ball, Chandler led last year’s special teams with 7.5 tackles and also forced two fumbles. That is just the sort of playmaking upon which this defense, with its several hybrid positions, depends upon, and Chandler is being counted on to do just that in 2019.
Also at the will are Deamonte Lindsay and Exree Loe, who have both been at other positions earlier in their careers. Lindsay, a redshirt senior was a safety in previous iterations of the Mountaineer defense, while Loe, a redshirt sophomore, was also a safety and got a look at the bandit position during spring practice. Lindsay and Loe hope to give WVU more flexibility at the will, and allow adjustments depending on the opponent. They could also wind up being contributors in passing situations, again depending on the ways in which Koenning wants to combat opposing offenses.
The next step takes us up to the defensive front, where the bandit position resides on the exterior of the defensive line. Again, true to the hybrid nature of several positions on this defense, the bandit is part defensive end and part linebacker, with responsibilities of each that can tip toward one end of the scale or the other depending on personnel. This year, the makeup indicates a heavier lean toward linebacker types, but keep in mind that flexibility is the watchword in building out the system., and that a defensive end type could also make appearances here.
Redshirt sophomore VanDarius Cowan, backed by former linebackers Zach Sandwisch, Charlie Benton and Adam Hensley, flesh out the early depth chart, and their abilities and status as linebackers a year ago give a hint as to how they will be employed in 2019. They’ll be attackers, but also be counted on to provide run support on their side of the setup.
Cowan, who also got looks as the middle linebacker since transferring to WVU from Alabama last summer, has the combination of size and speed to be a focal point of the defense, and if he masters the responsibilities there, could be a breakout performer. Sandwisch, a redshirt junior who also got a chance to show what he could do last year as injuries decimated the WVU linebacking corps, has the size and strength to hold his ground and make a name for himself at the new position.
Adding to the intrigue at bandit are a pair of players who suffered season-ending injuries in 2018, but who could bring even more depth and productivity. Benton, who was knocked out for the year after just 17 snaps in the opener against Tennessee, gives the option of more speed and coverages off the edge, while Hensley, who was felled in the Iowa State game and lost for the year, adds some of the same capabilities as Sandwisch. Both rehabbed knee injuries during spring practice, but if both are ready for full participation during the fall, Koenning could have a variety of weapons to deploy as he attempts to disrupt Big 12 offenses.
The outlook here is fairly simple. There are some proven and some promising players in the linebacking corps, and if they mesh together as hoped, West Virginia could be in very good shape in a linebacking corps that has been revamped in terms of both responsibilities and personnel.
Previously In The Series