WVU Defensive Front To Be Built With Interchangeable Parts
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — At the moment, and certainly subject to change, West Virginia’s defensive front will likely be of the three-man variety, at least in terms of traditional defensive linemen. A fourth defender, the bandit, will sometimes line up on the line of scrimmage to give the Mountaineers a four man look in terms of numbers, but that position has more linebacker-type responsibilities than that of a defensive end. In reality, it will be more of a 3-4 look that WVU will have in some of its base configurations.
Even though West Virginia will have to fill just those three positions, the graduation of Jabril Robinson, Ezekiel Rose and Kenny Bigelow, along with the move to offense of James Gmiter, means that defensive line coach Jordan Lesley will have to be flexible in the way he utilizes his personnel. To that end, he has been cross-training some of his charges, with an eye toward using them at more than one position.
“I think one of the best things about our defense is we can interchange guys,” he explained. “So, where you have a tackle that primarily plays a three technique maybe has a little knack for playing a five technique in some situations. It gives you a lot of flexibility. So, yeah, we’ve started mixing and matching, and the more fronts we install, the more we get an idea of that. Sometimes our ends will bump in and play a little bit four wide to three technique on some things. Like I said, you get to see guys play a lot of different techniques, and you start to hone in on what they’re good at.”
West Virginia’s defensive linemen will also will slide left and right depending on the call and the offensive alignment — perhaps a bit more than in some conventional fronts. The nose (zero technique) might be in the center-guard gap or even wider, while the end and tackle can also move a couple of gaps. Reese Donahue noted that in some situations the end might be outside the offensive tackle. All of that, along with position cross-training, makes the ability to play in multiple positions, with multiple techniques, vital to the 2019 defense.
With that flexibility, though, comes the challenge of teaching and mastering different alignments and responsibilities. It’s an age old challenge — keep things simple to avoid confusion and hone with repetitions, or be more multiple to keep opponents off-base, but risk some blown assignments as the defenders learn what to do?
In Donahue, Darius Stills and Dante Stills, Lesley has a solid corps to work with, but the success of this year’s defensive front will likely depend on how well newcomers and backups perform. Donahue, Stills and Stills will likely get all the snaps they can handle, but who can provide the depth that’s needed? Taijh Alston has received good early reviews, and Brenon Thrift, who was buried on the depth chart last year, has been revitalized in this system, which is more attacking in nature than last season’s gap-responsibility scheme.
Alston is currently manning the end position, and behind him are junior Jeffery Pooler and senior Quondarius Qualls, both of whom are looking to make their marks. Pooler has seen backup snaps during his career, while Qualls missed most of last season with an injury. That makes the end spot one full of questions, and that’s where the mixing and matching might come in. Donahue certainly has the knowledge and adaptability to play either of the exterior line spots, so he could bounce back and forth if necessary.
A final challenge is the integration of players who have been at different positions in previous years, which multiplies the change effect that every defender is experiencing with the new staff and system this year. Qualls and Tavis Lee are moving down from linebacker (Lee had been doing so some last year), and Tyrese Allen from tackle to nose. In trying to meet all of those challenges and assemble his rotation, Lesley will move his players around as much as possible during the spring.
“When we got into pads, I started mixing and matching who is running with the twos in with the ones and then the threes in with the ones, down with the twos and vice versa,” he detailed. “I try to always get all three of those groups against good-on-good work, because I want to see them versus our best in who is ready to make plays.”