Mountaineer defense already up to speed
MORGANTOWN - It has been the better part of five months now that West Virginia's new defensive coaches have been installing and coaching a new defensive philosophy to a group of veteran players who had grown accustomed to something quite different and to rookies who are starting from scratch.
And they have done so while working for a month in spring drills and throughout fall camp against one of the fastest-tempo offenses in the country and one filled with some of the nation's most renowned playmakers.
But on Saturday, the Mountaineers get their first test against something quite different. It's not that Marshall's offense isn't talented. It is. But like most offenses in the country it's is simply different than that of WVU.
"Now you're introducing a whole new offense to them,'' first-year defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said. "Can they grasp that part of it within the scheme of our defense?''
So when West Virginia opens its season at noon Saturday in perhaps the final game ever with Marshall, is it a plus or a minus that the rebuilt and re-schemed Mountaineer defense will be encountering something that figures to be quite different than anything it has seen in practice?
Well, DeForest figures that what his team has had to deal with in practice can only help, not just when the Mountaineers face Marshall, but in virtually every game this season.
"It's the greatest thing that could ever happen,'' DeForest said of facing Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin and the rest of West Virginia's fast-paced offense. "The speed of the game by our offense, I don't know if we'll face anybody faster. So hopefully we won't ever get tempoed. That's the goal and that's why we play and practice fast.''
So, after 15 spring practices and a month of fall drills, what of that revamped defense? Has it made the type of progress the coaches had hoped?
Well, that remains to be seen. But at least after all that time and all those practices there seems at least to be a familiarity born. And that includes a sort of comfort level on the part of the coaches, who needed not only to teach the system, but adapt it to the personnel available.
"It's progressed because the coaches know what we want, we know what the players can handle and, more importantly now, they're executing the way we want it to be executed,'' DeForest said. "We have mistakes out there like technique problems and missed tackles, but there are not a lot of mental errors.
"So at least we know they grasp it. Now it's just a matter of can they executed it by perfecting their technique, whether it's tackling or [man-to-man] technique, those types of things.''
Depth is another issue and one that can't be taken lightly. It isn't a matter of finding 11 guys who can play the scheme and plugging them into the right spots, although that was a major focus during August. Players - particularly among the front seven linemen and linebackers - were switched around like pieces in a puzzle.
Jorge Wright was moved from nose tackle to end and Shaq Rowell emerged as the top nose tackle. Tyler Anderson became a Buck linebacker instead of an end. Most of the linebackers have been tutored at multiple positions.
Behind the starters, though, there remain question marks almost everywhere. DeForest says he probably has five or six more players he feels comfortable putting into a game.
"You'd like to have 22, obviously. But sometimes that's not the case,'' DeForest said. "If you have three corners for two spots you're in good shape; three safeties for two spots, and so on. We feel like we're good there, but there are a couple of positions that we're still not solid on because guys have been banged up.''
All in all, though, it has been a good thing trying to find and fit those pieces while operating against an offense that is as good as any it will see all season. But even more importantly, those defenders have been trying to earn their spots at breakneck speed, which should serve them well if the game slows down a bit against other opponents.
"I think it's an advantage for us,'' DeForest said. "We can get our feet set, we can get our minds set, we can get our communications set. If they give us time to catch our breath and process the defensive call and then process the formation identification, I think we'll be a lot better, obviously. We've gone so fast and made them do that on the run, which should make us that much better.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.