WVU Linebacker Outlook: Experience Returns But Improved Play At Bandit Needed
West Virginia returns a great deal of its experienced linebackers from last season.
What the Mountaineers will be seeking this spring is playmakers at the bandit linebacker position, which was often a juggling act last year as five different players saw game action there, none making quite the impact that defensive coordinator Vic Koenning would have liked
Returning – Jake Abbott (Jr.), Jared Bartlett (RFr.), Charlie Benton (Sr.), Josh Chandler (Jr.), VanDarius Cowan (Jr.), Drew Joseph (RFr.), Exree Loe (Jr.), Mike Powers (RFr.), Dylan Tonkery (Sr.), Luke Williams (Sr.)
Departed – Shea Campbell (Sr.), Adam Hensley (Sr.), Deamonte Lindsay (Sr.), Quondarius Qualls (Sr.), Zach Sandwich (Jr.)
Recently enrolled newcomers – none
Expected to enroll this summer – Lanell Carr (Fr.), Taurus Simmons (Fr.), Eddie Watkins (Fr.)
Besides finding a couple playmaking bandits, WVU’s linebackers also hope just to stay relatively healthy, as injuries greatly impacted those positions the last couple of years.
In 2018, the Mountaineers lost five different linebackers for significant stretches of the season because of injuries, and then last year, medical issues again took their toll.
One of those who was hurt, Quondarius Qualls, has graduated, and fourth-year players Adam Hensley and Zach Sandwisch also are departing. Qualls did start seven games for WVU before injuring his knee, but West Virginia’s other starting ‘backers are all slated to return in 2020.
Dylan Tonkery (6-0, 228 lbs., Sr.) was one of those who missed an extended period of time because of an injury in 2018, but he made it through last season injury-free. Playing in all 12 games and starting 11 of them, the Bridgeport, West Virginia, native recorded 36 tackles, 3.0 TFLs and 1.5 sacks last year. He split his time between middle linebacker and bandit linebacker in ’19, so he could play either position during his senior campaign, though the Mountaineer coaches believe he’s more natural in the middle.
WVU has a few other options besides Tonkery at the bandit this coming year. VanDarius Cowan (6-4, 235 lbs., Jr.) certainly could be a feature player there, if he’s fully recovered from a knee injury that cut short his 2019 season after just two games. The Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, native attended Alabama in 2017 and played in seven games for the Crimson Tide, mainly on special teams, during that true freshman season. An off-field issue the next summer got him dismissed from ‘Bama by coach Nick Saban, and he transferred to WVU prior to the 2018 season where he had to sit out that season to fulfill transfer requirements. The NCAA also suspended him four games to start the 2019 campaign, thus postponing Cowan’s Mountaineer debut until Oct. 5 against Texas. The former five-star recruit showed his raw natural ability against the Longhorns, finishing with four tackles and an impressive sack of UT’s Sam Ehlinger. Cowan added two more tackles the next week against Iowa State but injured his knee in the process. He subsequently underwent surgery and was sidelined for the remainder of the year. Cowan’s injury may force him to take things a bit slow in spring practice, but the hope is he’ll be 100 percent by the fall.
Jared Bartlett (6-2, 210 lbs., RFr.) is another promising bandit linebacker who saw action in the latter portion of the ‘19 season. Unlike Cowan, though, injury didn’t keep Bartlett off the field – the desire to preserve his redshirt did. The Suwanee, Georgia, native did see significant action in four of the Mountaineers’ final five games, but WVU made sure to keep him within the four-game limit to maintain his redshirt. He ultimately had nine tackles in four games, but those numbers figure to go up significantly next season.
At the moment, Cowan and Bartlett would seem to be West Virginia’s top two bandits, though Tonkery could factor in there also, or he could slide back to middle linebacker, or he could play a little of each.
Additionally, all three of WVU’s incoming true freshmen linebackers – Taurus Simmons (6-3, 215 lbs., Jenkins H.S./Savannah, Ga.), Lanell Carr (6-3, 235 lbs., De Smet Jesuit H.S./St. Louis, Mo.) and Eddie Watkins (6-4, 240 lbs., Hillcrest H.S./Evergreen, Ala.) –will start their Mountaineer careers as bandits. All three are regarded as a strong pass rushers – Carr had seven sacks as a high school senior, Simmons had nine and Watkins 10 – so they would seem to have that skill, which is highly important for the bandit position. Any of the three also could eventually move to other positions, so while it’s likely each will start out at bandits, the odds are they all won’t finish their careers there, as middle linebacker or defensive end could be future callings for one or two of them.
At the will linebacker, Josh Chandler (5-11, 224 lbs., Jr.) returns for what is expected to be his second season as a starter. He began the 2019 season at will linebacker in Koenning’s 3-3/4-2 hybrid defensive scheme, but slid over to middle linebacker later in the year, as Tonkery moved to bandit. Wherever he played, Chandler was a starter and a key factor as long as he was healthy. He did miss two games (against Baylor and Texas Tech) after being injured at Oklahoma, but returned to help lead WVU’s upset at Kansas State. For the season, Chandler, who was an honorable mention all-Big 12 pick last season, was second on the team in tackles with 71, and he also had two pass deflections, one fumble recovery and 3.5 TFLs.
Exree Loe (6-0, 210 lbs., Jr.) rotated with Chandler at will linebacker for the first three-quarters of the season and then started at that spot later in the year when Chandler was hurt and eventually moved to middle linebacker. Loe arrived at WVU from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 2017 after an outstanding high school career as a cornerback and receiver. But he grew into a linebacker at West Virginia, and became an integral part of its defense last year, playing in 12 games, starting three and recording 40 tackles, 3.5 TFLs and two pass deflections.
West Virginia will be looking for depth at linebacker after the trio of Tonkery, Chandler and Loe.
Charlie Benton (6-1, 224 lbs., Sr.) started WVU’s 2018 opener against Tennessee, but injured his knee in the first quarter of that game and was sidelined for the rest of that season. He did not see any game action this past year either. His status moving forward is questionable.
The Mountaineers have a few walk-ons – Jake Abbott (6-0, 224 lbs., Jr.), Drew Joseph (5-8, 195 lbs., RFr.) and Luke Williams (6-0, 228 lbs., Sr.) – who will also try to climb up the depth chart at the linebacker position this year. Abbott would seem the most likely of that trio to become a regular part of the ‘backer rotation, possibly filling the shoes left by the graduation of Shea Campbell. A native of Fairmont, West Virginia, Abbott was a special team stalwart last season, playing in 10 games and recording one tackle. He very well could add more snaps at linebacker this next season.