A few Goode men
MORGANTOWN - After five games, it would appear that West Virginia has three of the best linebackers in the Big East - experienced, smart, talented and never at a loss for what to do.
There's only one problem. All three are Najee Goode.
"Najee is playing well,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "If we could clone three of him, we would.''
That, of course, would solve a lot of problems. The fact of the matter is, Goode is probably the best guy to fill all three roles - Mike (middle), Sam (strong side) and Will (weak side). Already this season, he has started four games at Mike and one, last Saturday against Bowling Green, at Sam. He also knows Will well enough to step in at any time.
But Goode can't be cloned, so heading into Saturday's Big East opener against Connecticut, the Mountaineers remain a week-to-week mystery of sorts at linebacker.
For the first three games of the season, Goode started in the middle with Doug Rigg at Sam and Casey Vance at Will. Junior college transfer Josh Francis replaced Vance against LSU, a game in which Rigg broke a bone in his wrist and was replaced by Tyler Anderson.
But then last week against Bowling Green, everything changed. Goode moved over into Rigg's spot at Sam, redshirt freshman Jewone Snow replaced Goode in the middle and Vance was back as the starter at Will. But even that lasted only two series before Francis again replaced Vance and played most of the rest of the afternoon.
So where to go from here? Well, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jeff Casteel is just playing it by feel.
"I still think we have a long way to go there,'' Casteel said. "We're still trying to get better. But I thought Jewone played OK for his first start. He's handled it well. He's really a mature kid and he's only going to get better the more he plays.''
With Rigg sidelined indefinitely, and judging by who played most against Bowling Green, the probable lineup against Connecticut is Snow again in the middle with Goode at Sam and Francis or Vance at Will.
The good news is that the more the Mountaineers juggle the linebackers, the more experience everyone gets. And that can't do anything but help in the long run.
That's especially true for Snow, who had very little opportunity to play anything but special teams until last week.
"I just wanted to be ready,'' Snow said. "I didn't want to get caught up in it being my first start. I wanted to be calm and focused.''
And was he?
"I was, actually,'' Snow said after leading the team in tackles with nine - in part because he made plays and in part because he was playing the best position to make them. "At the start I was a little nervous, but after the second play I was fine and I ended up playing a little better in the second half.''
Goode didn't mind the switch, either. He still handled most of the same responsibilities as far as calling signals - usually one of the middle linebacker's roles - and handled the outside linebacker spot like he'd been there before, which he had.
"It's the same thing I did last year and the year before that,'' Goode said. "I just moved around to wherever I was needed.
"After playing the middle for the first four games, I do prefer that because I got settled in there. But after a while I started remembering everything I did last year and tried to improve on it.''
In an ideal world with everyone healthy, Casteel isn't sure what his best lineup is, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. If he has multiple players who can play multiple positions, it does lend some versatility and depth to the linebacking corps.
"I think it's a little bit more natural for Naj to be at the Sam,'' Casteel said. "I think he's a little more comfortable there. And I like him at the Sam. I think he has the ability to do some things there that at Mike he probably doesn't get to do. But I think he likes being in the middle a little bit because you get around the ball a lot more.''
Holgorsen told West Virginia Illustrated that Mike Molinari will punt on Saturday against UConn, and junior place kicker Tyler Bitancurt will also handle kickoffs.
Smith has been erratic in both those areas. West Virginia ranks No. 119 in the country in net punting and No. 104 in kickoff return yards allowed. He punted just once against Bowling Green and it went only 14 yards, his second 14-yard shank in as many games. He kicked off eight times, but was replaced on two others by Bitancurt.
Molinari is a redshirt freshman walk-on from Parkersburg South who is also Bitancurt's holder on place kicks. Before last week, Bitancurt had not kicked off since handling the job periodically as a freshman.