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Fresh challenge for WVU defense

MORGANTOWN - There are more than a few common misconceptions about the Big 12 football conference that West Virginia will join this season.

At the top of the list perhaps is that everyone in the league plays a spread-'em-out, throw-it-deep offense.

That's not true.

Kansas State pounds the football. Texas, while capable of throwing the ball, would prefer to rely on the run. Even TCU and Oklahoma, which can throw with the best of them, also like to play between the tackles when they can.

"Those are Big East-style offenses to a point,'' West Virginia defensive line coach Erik Slaughter said. "Of course, then you get Baylor and Oklahoma State and Texas Tech and people like that will just spread you out and throw the ball. But to say there's one style or another, you can't. You have to be prepared for both.''

Thus, as the Mountaineers continue to install their new 3-4 defensive scheme and prepare for the wide variety of offenses they will encounter - not just in the Big 12 but also in non-conference play - Slaughter has the task of molding a defensive line to challenge those different looks basically from a group of players who were recruited to play in the Big East.

A daunting task, given that the Big East tilts much more toward running teams? Well, not really, Slaughter said. Despite the fact that his group is generally considered to be rather thin on talent and experience and not particularly suited to a Big 12 style, Slaughter has no problem working with that group.

The fact is, he said, they're just as good as most other defensive line groups in the Big 12.

"The thing about watching the Big 12 and the people who play there, the thing is the D-line play is probably not as good as it is in the Big East, to be honest with you,'' Slaughter said. "The linemen in the Big 12, with the exception of Oklahoma and Texas, they aren't outstanding. They're good players. They're solid players. But we have a lot of those guys, too. Some of them are young. And we're going to put them in there and see what they can do.''

At spots, the Mountaineers are actually pretty solid on the defensive line, not only as far as talent goes, but style, too. Naturally, in the coming years Slaughter will try to recruit perhaps to a slightly different style, but not that much.

Take the players he has at the top of his depth chart now, for instance.

"Will Clarke is a guy who's long and tall and can run. Those are the kind of guys I like,'' Slaughter said. "I like guys who are explosive and can change direction. As far as recruiting a guy who can sit in one spot and maintain one gap, we don't do that very often. What I want in the future are guys who are athletic enough to change direction, to rush the quarterback and also maintain a gap.''

And other than Clarke?

"Shaq Rowell is having a good camp. Christian Brown's an explosive guy,'' Slaughter said. "I think Jorge Wright is a guy who has played in games and proven he can do that. And all the freshmen we signed are quick-twitch guys who can move around and are great athletes. All those guys will eventually be great players.''

Wright will be in the middle of West Virginia's three-man front, as he was last year. Clarke will be on one side of him and Rowell could be on the other. But don't be surprised if Brown is in that mix, too. He's just a true freshman who arrived this summer, but when asked if he had a chance to play, defensive coordinator Joe DeForest looked almost stunned at the query.

"Have you seen him?'' DeForest asked. "Yeah, he's a guy who's going to play for us this year.''

There are others with more experience, but the 6-foot-3, 290-pound Brown, from Bridgeton, N.J., will certainly be included.

"I wouldn't be surprised at all,'' Slaughter said of Brown's potential to be in the starting lineup on Sept. 1. "But then again, I'm not a guy who sits in there and says, 'Here's my three starters.' I want a bunch of starters in my room, not just three. The only way you're going to be successful in this league is to have a lot of guys who can play.''

Right now, those others include fifth-year senior walk-on J.B. Lageman and January freshman enrollee Imarjaye Albury. There is also a group of smaller guys who serve as the fourth lineman when the defense morphs into a four-man front or inside linebackers at other times. They include juniors Tyler Anderson and Chidoziem Ezemma, as well as another true freshman, Eric Kinsey from Miami.

All in all, Slaughter understands the deficiencies of his line - both perceived and real - but he readily admits them and is working to rectify things.

"We're inexperienced, people think we don't have depth and we've got a lot of guys who have never put a helmet on in a college football game,'' Slaughter said. "And that's all true. So we'd better be good at something. And the thing we're trying to be good at right now is being very tough minded, play extremely hard and be technically sound. A lot of these guys haven't played, and how they respond when they get out there, I don't know. We'll find out. But I like the way they're preparing.''

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

 


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