Same group, different results for WVU defense?
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It was certainly not the most revealing statement to emerge from West Virginia's preseason football drills this month, but something that Keith Patterson said early on is nonetheless both intriguing and obvious.
West Virginia's defensive coordinator was talking about his group, which to say endured its share of hardships a year ago would be an understatement. That Mountaineer defense surrendered what is believed to be more yards and more points and generated more angst than any in school history.
Ah, but this year almost everyone returns.
"Well, sometimes having everybody back isn't always a good thing,'' Patterson said. "There's two ways to look at that.''
Indeed, as West Virginia heads into the final week of preparation for Saturday's 2013 season opener against William & Mary, it does so with a defense made up largely of the same players responsible for last year's debacle. Is that a good thing or a bad one?
It is the most intriguing question surrounding this team - more so than who will play quarterback, what to make of a completely rebuilt receiving corps or how to squeeze in enough snaps for all those running backs. It became painfully obvious last season that offensive issues matter little if opponents are simply allowed to one-up a West Virginia team incapable of stopping them.
Well, suffice it to say that for the most part there will be no changing of the guard as far as WVU's defensive personnel goes. When the depth chart for that unit is finally revealed this week, the cast of characters is likely to include only a few names that were not on last year's roster. Junior college linebacker Brandon Golson could be a starter. Freshman cornerback Daryl Worley could be on the two-deep, as could junior college lineman Dontrill Hyman and freshman safety Jeremy Tyler.
There could be some who redshirted last year, too - safety Jarrod Harper, cornerback Brandon Napoleon, lineman Noble Nwachukwu, linebacker Sean Walters perhaps - but as for the 11 who trot out onto the field for the first snap, count on nine, 10 or perhaps even all 11 having been there before.
Yes, it's a newly tweaked defensive scheme with a couple of new coaches - Tony Gibson and Brian Mitchell on the back end - and a new coordinator in Patterson. By all indications it's a new attitude and focus, as well. All of that can change things dramatically and, obviously, it's the hope of Dana Holgorsen that it does.
But perhaps more than anything else it is a defense that needs to start fresh and as confident as possible, despite last year's massive failures. And that, almost as much as X's and O's and the like, is something Patterson has not addressed lightly.
"I'm not into making excuses about how we were young or how we were whatever,'' Patterson said. "That's why in January we started working on the mind far before we started working on the body.''
And it hasn't stopped for even one day.
"It's a mental game. It's a game of passion,'' Patterson said. "Even from the standpoint of 'What are you representing when you play out there?' When you take that field, you're representing the fans. You're representing the university. You're representing a state. You're representing something bigger than yourself. So that ought to affect the way you think and the way you prepare and the way you do everything.
"So we went to square one back in January and built it. I am very pleased with where we are right now. By no stretch of the imagination are we where we want to be, but thank God we're not where we used to be.''
Actually, Patterson tries as best he can to avoid at all costs discussing where this defense used to be. He says he did it once, in the beginning, back in January perhaps. It had to be done, but it didn't have to be harped upon.
"The only thing we have done is say, 'OK, here's where we are,' '' Patterson said. "I think you always have to identify where you are, as a defense specifically, to identify where you're going. So we took our Big 12 rank in defense, we took our national rank in defense, and said, 'Here's where we are and where we're going.' You can't get to where you're going if you don't know where you were.''
And so now, sounding like WVU basketball coach Bob Huggins telling his pickup-truck-sans-rear-view-mirror story - "We're not goin' backwards, son'' - Patterson moves forward. Last season is just that - last season, not this.
"Our kids know that last year they didn't meet the standards that each one of them, individually, wanted to meet. So why reference it?'' Patterson said. "I reference, 'Here's where we're going and here's how we're going to get there.' Hard work, blue collar, Mountaineer mentality. Those are the things I preach every single day.
"I don't drive down the road looking in the rear-view mirror. I don't want our guys driving down the road looking in the rear-view mirror. I want our guys driving down the road fixed and focused on where we're headed.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.