WVU Trying To Develop Depth, Chemistry At The Linebacker Position
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–When asked to name his top backups in the linebacking corps, West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said, “Me, (fellow assistant coach) Mark Scott and …” His voice tailed off as he was unable to come up with a third.
His sarcasm tells you about the concern Gibson has for the depth at linebacker in his 3-3-5 odd stack defense. If he willing to include himself, a former undersized cornerback now in his mid-40s, even in a joking manner, as worthy of a depth chart spot, he obviously is still searching for the right mix at linebacker.
“The good thing is we’re only half way through (preseason practices),” said Gibson. “We’ve still got time before the first game. But we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Gibson and Scott, both of whom coach WVU’s linebackers, are fairly happy with the starting three in that unit. David Long at will, Dylan Tonkery in the middle and Charlie Benton at sam have been strong throughout the preseason. Benton is the only newcomer in that group, as he transferred in from Butler (Kansas) Community College this past January. Tonkery started nine games last year as a redshirt freshman, though his experience in 2017 was at outside linebacker. He’s moved to middle linebacker this season. And then there’s Long, who is West Virginia’s premier defensive playmaker. In a way, he’s the Mountaineers’ defensive version of Steph Curry, in that he just has freakish skills that others can’t emulate, no matter how hard they try.
“David Long screws the rest of our linebackers up more than any player I’ve ever coached, because he does stuff they can’t do,” Gibson said shaking his head. “They watch that, and it screws them all up if they try to do the same thing, because they can’t do that.
“I do tell David to play within the scheme, but he also has the freedom to go make plays,” added Gibson. “What am I going to tell David Long? Not to make plays? We want him to do what he does.”
Nobody on the WVU defensive side may be a playmaker to the degree of Long, but Tonkery seemingly has found a home at the middle linebacker spot. At six feet tall and 222 pounds, the Bridgeport (W.Va.) High grad isn’t the biggest Mike ‘backer in the world, but he has the explosiveness the Mountaineer coaches like at that position.
“We look at our strength numbers with our strength staff, which is as good as anyone in the country. Dylan is able to transition his work in the weight room onto the football field. He’s one of the strongest and most powerful guys we have. He has a background as DB and a running back, and he can still run and is athletic,” noted Scott, who is in his fourth season as a full-time assistant at WVU after being a G.A. with the Mountaineers the three previous years. “You can just see he’s at a whole different level in terms of his comfort zone at the mike. He’s not just feeling his way. He’s playing downhill and doing a really good job.”
Benton is the one completely new piece to WVU’s starting group of linebackers. The 6-foot-2, 213-pounder was a second-team all-conference selection last year while at Butler C.C.
“Charlie has had some really, really good practices lately,” said Scott. “He’s playing faster and more physical. He’s playing really well.
“We like what we have in terms of our starters,” added Scott. “Our first three linebackers are separating themselves.”
It’s that search for quality backups at the linebacking positions that is causing Gibson and Scott some sleepless nights. The loss of Quondarius Qualls and Brendan Ferns to injuries in the spring has sliced off some of the potential depth from that unit. Both Qualls and Ferns may be able to return from their respective knee injuries, but at best it won’t be until late in the season. Until then, the Mountaineers must find some others who can provide solid backup duties.
“We need to find who those fourth, fifth and sixth guys are,” noted Scott, who was a linebacker himself in his playing days at Hillsdale (Mich.) College. “We have Adam Hensley and Zach Sandwisch, who have been here a while. We’re also going to have to lean on Shea Campbell to be a backup and play on special teams. Then we have the young guys in Josh Chandler and Exree Loe, who athletically can do anything. They run well and are physical. Now it’s a matter of getting them reps in as many different situations as we can so things become second nature to them.”
Loe is a very interesting, albeit inexperienced, linebacker candidate. He came to WVU from Johnstown, Pa., in the summer of 2017, and spent most of that subsequent fall working at safety, though he never played in a game and ultimately redshirted. Prior West Virginia’s bowl game, Gibson started using Loe at linebacker in practice, allowing the 6-foot, 217-pounder to play a position that better fit his growing frame. A pectoral injury shortly after he started at the new position not only took him off the field prior to the bowl but kept him out of practice throughout the spring. So the redshirt freshman may have potential, but precious little experience playing linebacker.
“How quickly Exree develops is going to depend on him,” said Scott. “How much work is he willing to put in on the field and away from the field? We’ve got guys getting together on their own watching film after practice. Especially for a guy like Exree, who hasn’t had as many reps as most everyone else, putting in that extra work is really important.”
Be it Loe, Chandler, Gibson or Scott, West Virginia is searching for a few quality linebackers to provide adequate depth.