WVU Searching For Right Mix, Productivity From Linebackers
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — If any area of play got attention in West Virginia’s football practices after the North Carolina State game was cancelled, giving the Mountaineers a week to prepare for Kansas State, it had to be the linebacking.
Certainly, the linebacking corps has not been lacking through two victories in which WVU gave up only 31 points, but the competition was not of the highest quality and with a group that has been mixed and matched, the situation had to be addressed.
This is especially true with the Big 12 opener ahead next Saturday at 3:30 in Milan Puskar Stadium, and with the opponent being Kansas State.
Now it’s true that the Mountaineer pass coverage has not been quite what you would want, but of all the Big 12 teams, the Wildcats are probably the least likely to take advantage of that if they can find weakness in the run defense that would allow them to control the ball and the clock and the line of scrimmage.
Bill Snyder, being a refugee from another era of football, prefers that style of play over today’s wide-open approach that is so prevalent in the Big 12.
First, let’s look at what is going on at linebacker for WVU.
To start the year they had an All-American-like anchor at linebacker in David Long, a somewhat undersized but quick and tough player who makes a highlight tape worth of big plays in almost every game.
But Dylan Tonkery, another undersized linebacker, wound up moving from an outside backers spot to the middle, which presented a learning curve that must still be going because his game against Youngstown State was mysteriously off.
“I was kind of disappointed in his game Saturday night,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson admitted. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a middle linebacker not have a tackle. I don’t think he recorded a tackle.
“He was in on a few assists. He knocks the ball out a lot to David (Long Jr.) and to JoVanni (Stewart) and to our safeties. But he has to start being more productive.”
One should not worry about this much, for Tonkery has shown himself to be a player filled with desire and with the ability to fulfill it, and there were some reasons he wasn’t doing more last week against Youngstown State.
“It was a little bit of schematics,” Gibson said. ‘”We did some different things. We played a lot of base, and their run schemes against us were about targeting certain parts of our defense where they wanted to go with the ball.
“I’m not concerned, but he missed a couple of tackles, that hurt us Saturday night, that he needs to make. He has to get better with that.”
This becomes especially true since WVU lost its starting Sam linebacker, Charlie Benton, in the opener and had to gerrymander things to make the fix, moving Stewart to that spot from safety.
By so doing they add another aggressive, talented but undersized player to the linebacking corps, Stewart being possibly the smallest starting Power 5 linebacker at 5-8 and 195 pounds in an era of 220- to 250-pound linebackers.
He was new to the position and had his hiccups last week because of it.
“He graded out okay,” Gibson said. “He made a few mistakes, lost leverage on a couple plays and that is to be expected. But, overall, I thought he played very hard and thought he was physical.”
The physical part is where the question was, for he had to deal with some jumbo-sized blockers.
“He took on some pullers and some zone scheme stuff — fullbacks, tight ends – and did okay with that,” Gibson said. “I think that his game will get better and better as we get into Big 12 play, because of the style of offense we will be facing. That is what we are looking for. We’re getting him game-ready for our next game.”
Long certainly has confidence in him.
“He’s a different kind of linebacker,” Long noted. “We use him in coverage, so him being smaller it’s not as bad as it would be if it were a 4-3 defense where he was in the box. But as for lineman trying to block him he doesn’t care who it is. He takes them on.”