WVU’s Tonkery In Spotlight Again As Backup Felled By Injury
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — No one doubted that there would be much riding on the performance of Bridgeport’s Dylan Tonkery in the middle of West Virginia University’s defense this season when spring started, but now that it is reaching its conclusion he has suddenly emerged as the key cog to the defense.
Not only does he move into his third linebacking position this year, but he must fill the huge shoes left behind by the graduated Al-Rasheed Benton, pressure enough if he had not reportedly lost what well may have been his prime backup in Brendan Ferns.
It was reported on Wednesday morning what had been rumored during the week that Ferns had torn the same ACL that he had surgically repaired and kept him out of the 2016 season. Surgery is necessary, which figures to keep him away for another year.
Tonkery was moved into Benton’s spot during the off-season after excelling as he filled in for the injured David Long through the first four games last season and then playing so well that defensive coordinator Tony Gibson had to find a way to write him into the starting defense through the second half of the season.
The move came with little fanfare.
“The first week back after the bowl game Gibby called me in his office and told me I was going to move to the Mike. That was about it,” Tonkery said in his normal low-key, all business approach.
Will or Sam or Mike, as the three linebacking spots are know at WVU for weak side, strong side or middle, makes not difference to Tonkery.
“I feel comfortable at all the positions. I like Sam and Mike more than I like Will. We’ll see how it goes,” he said.
To play in the middle, Tonkery had to bulk up a bit.
“I’m at 225 now,” Tonkery said. “I’m going to try to gain 5 or 10 more pounds before the season because really you lose weight in camp, so you want to be a little heavier going in.”
“It’s all about putting on proper weight,” linebacker coach Mark Scott said. “You want to change your body composition to get more lean muscle mass, take away body fat and everything like that. So, whomever’s in the middle, he’s going to have to take on more than the outside guys
“He’s taking on guards. He’s got 320-something pound tackles climbing up to him every single snap in the run. As much weight as that guy can put on, without losing any quickness or athleticism, is going to help them to take on and defeat those blocks.”
This is something Tonkery has learned quickly. When asked the difference being in the middle, he offered this:
“I’m getting blocked a lot more.”
The attention this spring has mostly been on Tonkery, especially since David Long — who is the key man in the defense and could be one of the best ever to play at WVU — is recovering from shoulder surgery and not taking part in drills.
Tonkery, though, isn’t in a make-them-notice-me mode.
“I’m not out there trying to impress anyone. I’m out there playing for myself and the team. I’m trying to make the team better,” he said.
“The image of he and Long working in concert, though, is one Scott sees as a potential big step forward for the defense as soon as Tonkery gets fully familiar with playing in the middle.
“I think on the mental side of things that he’s a very smart kid,” Scott said. “He played both Sam and Will for us last year. So, he knows the defense front-to-back, back-to-front, and he really knows the responsibility of all three linebackers, which is what you need out of that Mike linebacker.
“There’s been a slight learning curve in terms of being inside. There’s more moving parts that you have to see and react to. He’s a guy that doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get really worked up.”
And the more he plays there, the better he gets, just as it was last year when he was introduced to the college game.
“The game is completely different now,” Tonkery admitted. “When I first got here I felt like everything was going 100 miles an hour. Now it’s just like slow motion. You think you have to sprint everywhere to get there but it’s really not like that. You use your eyes and just play how you are supposed to play. You see everything that way.”
“The game’s starting to slow down for him,” Scott agreed. “He’s being able to identify things quicker, react quicker, which is allowing him to play more physical. He’s put more weight on. He’s one of the stronger guys we’ve got, especially in the linebacker group. So, these last few practices, you can tell that he’s starting to feel more comfortable. He’s starting to react quicker and play more physical.”