Linebackers to spare?
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- One of the biggest questions about West Virginia's defense heading into last season concerned the linebackers. Not only was there a paucity of experience at the position, but a switch to a 3-4 alignment required more of them.
The results were, well, mixed.
On the one hand, West Virginia's defense was awful. And while in the pass-happy Big 12, the back end and the pass rush took most of the blame for that, the linebackers have to be held accountable, too.
On the flip side, though, players like Isaiah Bruce, Nick Kwiatkoski, Dozie Ezemma and converted safety Wes Tonkery got their feet wet at the position. More veteran players like Doug Rigg, Shaq Petteway and Jared Barber got a chance to transition into a new scheme.
And so now, a year later and despite the departure of two of the mainstays from the corps - Terence Garvin and Josh Francis - what returns is a fairly veteran group. And with an emphasis on the position in recruiting that appears as if it might pay immediate dividends, all of a sudden there are linebackers to spare.
There are, in fact, perhaps a dozen with a real chance to play this season.
"With some of the younger guys, it might be a three-deep,'' said Rigg, one of just three seniors in the group. "But the main thing is we're trying to get two deep at every position because of all the plays we play and how hard we're going to try to play this year.''
Indeed, with so much inexperience last season - besides Garvin, Francis and Rigg almost no one had played significant minutes - players were being thrown into the fire at an alarming rate. Not only did the new alignment require an extra linebacker on the field, the pace of play in a new league required more substitutions, too.
Having as many as a dozen options this season would be a huge change.
"Oh, that's great for me,'' Rigg said. "I'm getting old now. I'm not a freshman anymore.''
Again, West Virginia has gotten to this point through the necessity of playing a lot of players a year ago.
Consider this: Seven of the top 13 tacklers on the team last season were linebackers, as were 10 of the top 24 and 12 of the top 30. Granted, linebackers tend to be the most prolific tacklers on any defense while the linemen fight off blocks and the secondary drops into coverage, but that so many figured into the defense shows how valuable depth at the position is.
Even if it means some of the most veteran players are playing fewer snaps.
"I'm trying to just get out there and play the snaps I play pretty hard,'' Rigg said. "Some of those games last year, I felt like I was going to die afterward. Having a two-deep and getting routine breaks throughout the game is going to help everybody.''
There seems to be a core of about six to eight players filling the two-deep as preseason camp heads into its final few days.
Rigg and Bruce are fairly established on the inside, as is Tonkery at the spur, which is somewhat a linebacker-safety hybrid. In a brief scrimmage Monday that was open to the media, junior college transfer Brandon Golson was playing at the buck, which is more of a power position in which the linebacker can easily step in as a fourth lineman.
Petteway, Kwiatkoski, Ezemma and Barber can easily step in at various positions. And that's not including experienced players Tyler Anderson and Jewone Snow, each of whom has started games, true freshmen Hodari Christian and Al-Rasheed Benton and redshirt freshman Sean Walters.
Is it any wonder the coaches could afford to move Garrett Hope - who played in 12 games last season - from linebacker to fullback last week? Or that the absences of junior college transfer D'Vante Henry and freshman Darrien Howard aren't as significant as they could be?
"And I think all four of the linebacker spots are interchangeable, even from inside to outside,'' Rigg said. "So it makes us more versatile.''
Despite that versatility - the 231-pound Bruce, for example, lined up at safety-centric spur position Monday - there are still specific roles that some of those linebackers will fill. Take Rigg, for instance.
"My role really doesn't change,'' Rigg said. "I'm the run-stopper guy.''
The point, though, is that this year, as opposed to last, there are plenty of bodies to fill those roles. There were games in 2012 that just overtaxed everyone.
"Baylor moved so fast. Honestly, I don't even remember the game. I have to watch it on film to remember what happened,'' Rigg said. "Oklahoma, too. I couldn't even remember plays. I had to watch the film.
"Maybe it's from all the head trauma over these three years is taking a toll on my body. But I'm so focused now on playing the next play that it's probably good that I'm not dwelling on the bad ones.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.