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Mountaineers tackle defensive issues

MORGANTOWN - Changing the alignment and the scheme this spring would appear to be the biggest challenge facing West Virginia's defense. For the most part, only a handful of players are in the same position they were in a year ago, and even they are being asked to do different things.

The issue facing those defenders right now, though, has little to do with scheme and everything to do with fundamentals.

"We miss way too many tackles,'' defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said. "Sure, we're going against some really skilled players, but as a defense as a whole we're not a good tackling football team. And that's something we need to work on.''

Indeed, WVU's defenders have a lot on their plates this spring, and heading into the final week of spring drills they seem to have adapted pretty well as far as learning a new defense. The Mountaineers are switching to a 3-4 alignment from the 3-3-5 that has been used for more than a decade, and an almost entirely new group of coaches is teaching it.

Still, it doesn't matter what the alignment is if the basics aren't down pat. West Virginia could line up in a 5-4-5 with three extra players on the field and if they don't tackle the guy with the ball it won't matter.

Apparently adjusting to a new scheme is going well because DeForest likes where his players are ending up. It's what they're doing when they get there that's the issue.

"They're in the right place for the most part, but they have to execute their tackle technique better,'' DeForest said. "They have to understand leverage and understand the sideline and understand that their teammates are on the other side of them and not overextend.''

There is also the not-so-small issue of trying to do all of this work, basically from the ground up, while facing in practice each day an explosive, fast-paced offense with veterans at almost every position.

To make matters worse, that offense isn't cutting the defense any breaks, either. There are no concessions to a defense that is in its infancy, but head coach Dana Holgorsen has been impressed with what he's seen. He knows that Big 12 offenses aren't going to cut WVU's defenders any slack, so they might as well get used to it now.

"I've been impressed with it,'' Holgorsen said of the way his team's defense hasn't backed down. "That's one reason these guys have been hired, because everybody that we play is going to be able to run things quickly.

"I don't [speed things up on offense] in a normal team [practice] situation, but in the scrimmages I do. There were times where we were going a lot faster than we would in a real game. But the defensive guys understand that and they aren't complaining about it. All they're doing is understanding that this is real life and this is the way it's going to be. So we better figure out ways to get calls in and we better figure out ways to ignore personnel and line up and be able to communicate. I thought they did a great job of communicating it and getting lined up. They didn't stop us and tackle us as well as we would like them to, but that will come.''

Again, there's that tackling issue. But as for DeForest, he understands what his players are up against and knows they just have to work at it. And if they can figure out a way to tackle Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, they should be able to bring down just about anyone.

"I wouldn't want to tackle them,'' DeForest said. "[Austin] makes people miss going backwards. I've never seen a guy like that. I'm glad he's on our team.''

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.


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