WVU Relying On State Natives To Deliver Defensively
Since Dana Holgorsen came to West Virginia, the image of football within the state has been offensive.
We’re not talking offensive as in offending anyone, but instead in terms of having high-powered offenses, so much so that you would think it rubbed off throughout the state in terms of the way football is played.
Yet, for whatever reason, the exact opposite has happened.
While West Virginia’s ability to create Power 5 conference football players over the past few years has jumped considerably, from a time when the state might be producing just one or two a year to a point where now there is a healthy crop being developed, oddly much of the bounty has come on the defensive side of the ball.
And West Virginia University’s football team is hoping to benefit greatly from it.
Take a look at the preseason depth chart put out this season, especially on the defensive side.
It begins with sophomore Darius Stills of Fairmont at nose guard, with his brother, true freshman Dante Stills, expected to play his way if not into the starting lineup immediately, then into the rotation. Reese Donahue of Ona, a Cabell Midland High product, is listed as a starting defensive end, Bridgeport High’s Dylan Tonkery as starting mike linebacker and Derrek Pitts of Dunbar at right cornerback.
What’s more, Shea Campbell of Morgantown, a walk-on who recently was awarded a scholarship is listed as the backup Sam linebacker and Martinsburg’s Deamonte Lindsay as the backup spur.
Specialists are dominated by in-state players with Evan Staley of Romney the placekicker and kickoff man, Billy Kinney of Morgantown the punter and Kyle Poland of Morgantown the backup long snapper.
“Our motto is this … any kid in any state who can help us win the Big 12, we’re going to recruit him,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “Right now, with Reese, Tonkery, Pitts, Darius, Dante … they are good players. We feel they can help us win the Big 12.”
What has happened to create this on rush of in-state talent?
“The coaching staff did a good job of scouting the players. We may not have had that before,” offered Donahue.
But he doesn’t see it only as an in-house thing for the university
“(The state of) West Virginia as a whole is doing better things. We were a little behind the larger states before. Now they are growing in talent level and in tactics. Before, we weren’t allowed to have camps, practice was restricted in the summer. I think we’re finally catching up with everyone else,” Donahue said.
And why is this important?
“With those kids, it means that much more to them every Saturday,” answered Gibson, himself an in-state product from Van. “When you put that Flying WV on it’s special to them. I would bet if you talk to them about it, they would get a little emotional.
‘You can’t replace what it means to a kid to come out and represent his home state.”
Staley, who was put on scholarship this year, put it best.
“Coming from in-state West Virginia, growing up in the state of West Virginia, watching football since the time you’re a little boy — that’s what you dream about. So, when coach (Holgorsen) called me into the office and told me I would be on scholarship, it was a dream come true,” he said.
WVU’s offensive minds are trying to find a way to get wide receiver Gary Jennings into the end zone this year. A year ago, he was a statistic absurdity with 97 passes caught to rank fourth in the nation, but only one producing a touchdown.
Early indications, though, are that not much has changed … but they can laugh about it.
“That’s been an on-going joke around the locker room, for Gary have that many catches and only one touchdown. I was laughing because yesterday at practice he makes a phenomenal play, catches it and goes out at the half yard line,” offensive coordinator Jake Spavital admitted.
“It’s been a joke, but it’s also been an emphasis. We need guys to score touchdowns. (David) Sills has a great ability to find his way into the end zone. We need those other guys to score when they catch the ball.”
Jennings’ receiving partner is Sills, who tied for the national lead in touchdown passes caught with 18, and thought long and hard, as did QB Will Grier, about leaving after last year and going into the NFL draft.
He opted not to, but why?
“I think (because of) the potential and the goals we can achieve as a team,” Sills said. ‘That was one thing that I really wanted to do. I think it’s more than just me, Will (Grier), Yodny (Cajuste), Trevon (Wesco), Gary (Jennings) and all those guys that decided to come back for their senior year, we got together and talked about it and the potential of the team that we had, and we knew we had a good chance to do something special at West Virginia, and that’s what we’re trying to do this year.”
That is the kind of thinking that is creating optimism that surrounds this team this season.
West Virginia is counting on a big bounce-back season from safety Dravon Askew-Henry, who seemed to be headed toward a great career before an injury cost him a year and then it took him all of last year to get back together.
Now, Gibson believes he is on the right track to have a huge senior season.
“He’s a kid who probably had the biggest turnaround from a year ago to right now. He’s back to where he used to be,” Gibson said. “You throw on film of him as a freshman and a sophomore and he’s playing at a real high level. But he got gun shy with his injury last year.
“Now you put film on and he looks exactly like he did back then … and he’s faster and stronger. The kids listen to him and follow him. The things he’s doing right now are off the charts.”