WVU Football Questions For 2018: Linebacker
Question 7 – Linebackers – With two of three starting linebackers returning in 2018, this position wouldn’t seem to be a huge worry for the Mountaineers heading into next season.
Still, WVU needs to find a replacement in middle, where Al-Rasheed Benton, an outstanding leader and playmaker, has departed, taking his team-high 110 tackles. And on top of replacing Benton, West Virginia – like many positions throughout the team – badly needs to develop depth.
Besides Benton, WVU also is losing two seniors in Xavier Preston and Hodari Christian who provided most of the depth at the linebacker positions this past season.
The linebacker most likely to step into Benton’s shoes at the Mike is third-year sophomore-to-be Brendan Ferns.
If all had gone according to plans, the former blue-chip recruit from St. Clairsville, Ohio, would be a heavily experienced junior right now who is unquestionably one of West Virginia’s defensive leader heading into ’18. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. A knee injury a few weeks prior to the start of 2016 season scratched the idea of playing Ferns as a true freshman. Then this past season, after seeing action in the first four games, working heavily on special teams and backing up Benton, Brendan suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery and sidelined him for the rest of the year. So one of the most ballyhooed recruits to ever sign with the Mountaineers has played in just four of the past 26 games and amassed 10 tackles during that time.
If he can stay healthy Ferns would seem to be the likely candidate to take over the starting middle linebacker spot for Benton. But staying healthy has been elusive for Brendan to this point.
If for some reason Ferns can’t do the job, then there are major concerns, because WVU’s requires strength in the middle. Certainly the Mountaineers are strong at the two starting outside linebacker positions as David Long, a junior-to-be, returns for his third season as a starter, and Dylan Tonkery, a sophomore-to-be, returns for his second.
Long obviously gives West Virginia an outstanding linebacker to build around. Despite missing the first four games of the season while he recovered from a knee injury suffered in the summer, the 5-foot-11, 220-pound native of Cincinnati finished this year with 16 tackles for lost yardage, which is the sixth best single-season mark in WVU history. He also was third on the team in tackles with 76, second in sacks with 3.5 and third in pass breakups with six.
A former running back and safety at Bridgeport (W.Va.) High School, Tonkery made a successful adjustment to the linebacker position this year. The 6-foot-2, 222-pounder held down the starting Will job for the first four games until Long returned, then moved to a backup role for a few games before again returning to the starting lineup, this time at the Sam, for the final five games when Preston was injured. In all, Tonkery was seventh on the team in tackles with 43, which included 6.5 for lost yardage.
If West Virginia went into next season with a starting linebacking corps of Tonkery, Ferns and Long, few would be surprised and WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson would be about as comfortable as his normally-nervous self could be about the position he coaches directly. Certainly the wish would be for Ferns to have more game experience at this point, but obviously nothing can be done to change the past.
The question moving forward probably has more to do with the order of the backups than who will be the starters. All three of those projected starters are underclassmen and thus should be together for a couple more years.
West Virginia has plenty of available bodies to try to develop linebacker depth. Besides Ferns, Long and Tonkery, sophomores-to-be Zach Sandwisch and Logan Thimons, as well as junior Adam Hensley, are each headed into their third season in the program. Hensley is the only one of these three to see more than token mop-up duty, though, and Hensley’s playing time has primarily come on special teams. Senior-to-be Quondarius Qualls began seeing increasingly playing time with the defense in a backup role late in the season, which was his first at WVU after transferring to West Virginia from Northwest Mississippi Community College. Mainly a pass-rushing defensive end in high school and juco, the 6-foot-1, 222-pound Qualls transitioned to outside linebacker last year and ultimately recorded 10 tackles in 12 games of action. Quondarius figures to get plenty of opportunities to expanded his role for the Mountaineers this spring. As things currently stand, he’s the only senior in WVU’s 2018 linebacking group.
West Virginia didn’t recruit a linebacker as part of the class of 2017, but it moved one of those true freshmen from safety to linebacker late this past fall. Exree Loe was primarily cornerback and wide receiver at Greater Johnstown (Pa.) High School, but began his time at WVU as a safety. As Loe added weight and strength (he’s now 6-foot, 208 pounds) in his first six months at West Virginia, Gibson decided to make another move with the true freshman who was redshirted this past fall. He’s now a Sam linebacker, and Gibbie thinks the athletic, hard-hitting Loe has a bright future at his new position. He’ll have a spring to further his fundamentals.
Besides West Virginia’s eight returning scholarship linebackers, there are also some intriguing walk-ons at the positions. Shea Campbell, Jonah Campbell, Luke Williams, Jake Abbott, Henry Cook and Tyler Lawrentz will all get opportunities this spring to try to work their way onto the linebacking depth chart. And no position at WVU over the past 15 years has offered greater walk-on success than linebacker. From Ben Collins and Scott Gyorko to Jeff Noechel, Casey Vance, Tyler Anderson and Justin Ardnt, some of the Mountaineers’ better linebackers in the past couple of decades have started out as walk-ons. There’s no guarantee this current group contains the next Arndt, but don’t bet against it.
To this group of returning linebackers, the Mountaineers will add two newcomers to the position when the spring semester begins at WVU. Charlie Benton is a lanky outside linebacker (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) who comes to West Virginia from Butler (Kansas) Community College. A native of Opelika, Ala., Benton was a second-team all-KJCCC selection this past year.
Benton is slated to enroll at WVU in time to participate in winter workouts and spring practice. So to is Canton McKinley (Ohio) High product Josh Chandler, whose size (5-foot-11, 226 pounds), athleticism and playmaking ability draw comparisons to Long. Chandler was a first-team all-Ohio selection this past year, despite a knee injury that limited him to seven games.
Benton appears destined for outside linebacker, while Chander, with is fireplug stature, could end up either inside or outside. Both newcomers figure to get opportunities this spring to try to earn a spot in the two-deep. Benton, in particular because of his junior college experience, is expected to be a major factor as West Virginia tries to develop some depth at all three linebacker spots.
But no matter where that depth comes from, Gibson desperately needs to find some for his group.