We continue our look ahead at the potential depth chart for the 2020 Mountaineer football team with a look at the linebackers, which for this story include the will, mike and bandit positions.
Injuries forced West Virginia to do some juggling those postions last year, particular at the bandit. Certainly WVU hopes to stay healthy this season and thus be able to lock in to a consistent linebacker rotation.
Quondarius Qualls and Shea Campbell have graduated from last year’s linebacking corps, but most of the others who saw game action at those three positions will return.
Here is how we view the linebacker rotation.
Anticipated starters – MLB Dylan Tonkery (Sr.), WLB Josh Chandler (Jr.), BAN VanDarius Cowan (Jr.)
The top end of West Virginia’s linebacking corps has plenty of experience. Dylan Tonkery played in 30 games over the previous three seasons, starting 25 of them. He has 101 career tackles, which includes 15.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. The Bridgeport (W.Va.) High product, who is normally a mike, also started several games at bandit last year, but it would seem best for all involved if he could stay at middle linebacker this season and hold down the fort there.
Josh Chandler stepped into the starting will linebacker spot last year after backing up David Long the previous season. A native of Canton, Ohio, Chandler finished second on the team in tackles in ‘19 with 72 despite missing two late season games because of an injury. When healthy, he’s one of the biggest playmakers on WVU’s defense, which is a huge reason the Mountaineers desperately hope he stays healthy the entire year.
Tonkery and Chandler would seem locked into starting roles at the mike and will ‘backer spots respectively. The bandit isn’t quite as sure a thing.
VanDarius Cowan would seem the likely starter at bandit on paper, but because he has precious little game experience, that should be written in pencil rather than ink. He’s played in just two games in his two previous seasons at West Virginia. After playing in seven games, mainly on special teams, as a true freshman at Alabama in 2017, he transferred to WVU and thus had to sit out all of the 2018 season. The NCAA suspended him for the first four games in 2019, so he didn’t get on the field for the Mountaineers last fall until Texas visited Morgantown on Oct. 5. He had a sack as well as four tackles against the Longhorns and then two more stops the next week against Iowa State before suffering a knee injury that sidelined him the rest of the year. The 6-foot-4, 241-pound Cowan reportedly is healthy for the start of his junior campaign, and he certainly has athletic skills few others possess, but he has to be able to stay on the field. If he does, West Virginia has a high-end talent at the bandit, but he’s got to be dependable.
Likely top backups – MLB Jake Abbott (Jr.), WLB Exree Loe (Jr.), BAN Jared Bartlett (RFr.)
Exree Loe gained plenty of experience last year, mainly subbing in for Chandler at the will, though he also started several games when Chandler was injured. The 6-foot, 212-pound Loe had 40 tackles on the ’19 season, including 3.5 for lost yardage. The junior will certainly be a heavily-used reserve again this coming season.
Jared Bartlett didn’t see any action in the first eight games last year as a true freshman, but WVU’s coaches took advantage of the two-year-old NCAA redshirt rule in springing the Suwanee, Georgia, loose the final four contests, though still preserving his year of eligibility. Bartlett amassed plenty of live snaps and nine tackles in his quarter season of work, and now he’ll challenge Cowan for the starting bandit job. Even if Bartlett, who now checks in at 233 pounds, a 23-pound increase from the summer of 2019, doesn’t end up with the first unit, he still figures to see regular action in rotation with Cowan.
West Virginia needs a linebacker to backup Tonkery in the middle, and the top candidate for that job appears to be Jake Abbott. The 6-foot, 224-pound junior saw action in 10 games last year, though most of those snaps came on special teams. The walk-on from Fairmont, West Virginia, seems poised to see work with the defense this year, though.
Other key returnees – WLB Charlie Benton (Sr.), MLB/WLB Drew Joseph (RFr.)
If WVU needs further depth at the linebacker positions, it has a few returnees to turn to.
Tops among those could be Charlie Benton. A product of Butler (KS) Community College, Benton came to West Virginia in 2018 and immediately earned a starting job at sam linebacker. He was on the field for the first 17 defensive snaps in the Mountaineers’ opener that season against Tennessee, but then sustained a significant knee injury. He hasn’t played in a game since. Now a fifth-year senior, WVU could use more ‘backer depth that Benton potentially could provide, but his status is still cloudy.
At 5-foot-8 and 202 pounds, Drew Joseph doesn’t have a classic linebacker’s build, but West Virginia’s coaches have praised the toughness and tenacity of the redshirt freshman walk-on from South Charleston. He could fight his way into the mix this season, probably special teams first but possibly at linebacker as well.
Newcomers who could see game action this season – BAN Lanell Carr (Fr.), BAN Taurus Simmons (Fr.), BAN Eddie Watkins (Fr.)
The three linebackers WVU signed to scholarships as part of the class of 2020 – Lanell Carr, Taurus Simmons and Eddie Watkins – all enter West Virginia labeled as bandits, though the odds would seem a couple of them will eventually split off to other positions. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Simmons is a lanky athlete with a high IQ, and he could potentially play either mike or will, as well as bandit. Carr (6-3, 235 lbs.) and Watkins (6-4, 240 lbs.) are both bigger and could possibly grow into defensive ends or defensive tackles.
If the Mountaineer linebacking corps stays healthy this season, WVU can probably preserve the redshirts of each of the three true freshmen. That will allow them to get bigger and stronger. After that year of physical development, then it will be easier to assess who likely stays at bandit and who moves to another position.
Previously In The Series