MORGANTOWN - The last time West Virginia had a senior-dominated defense that was even in the same ballpark statistically with last year's group was 2007. It was Rich Rodriguez's aborted final season and the Mountaineers ranked seventh in total defense and eighth in scoring defense.
The starting defensive unit the night WVU beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl to cap that season included six seniors playing their final game. Throw in junior linebacker Reed Williams, who was the defensive MVP that night and would eventually redshirt the next season because of shoulder injuries, and the next year's defense had to replace seven starters and three important backups.
Just for the record, that following year the defense still managed to rank No. 11 in the country in scoring defense. The rushing and passing numbers slipped into the 30s and 40s, but it was still a group that for the most part carried a team with the 73rd-ranked scoring offense (No. 104 in passing) to nine wins.
We bring all that up, of course, because beginning today Jeff Casteel has an eerily similar task in front of him. When West Virginia begins spring drills, WVU's defensive coordinator begins the process of replacing seven players from the defense that started the Champs Sports Bowl in December. Throw in Brandon Hogan, who missed that game because of a knee injury, and Casteel is once again facing a huge rebuilding job.
And last year's defense was even better than the 2007 version, ranking third in total defense and scoring defense, second against the run and 11th in passing yards allowed.
Can the same kind of metamorphosis take place?
"Well, the standard has been set here and this is very reminiscent of after the Fiesta Bowl here when we had to replace seven or eight of those kids off a defense that was fifth, sixth, eighth [in the country]. Whatever it was we were pretty good," Casteel said. "We're in the same situation now and the kids that are in the room understand what the standard is and they're trying to work toward that. We've got a long way to go."
The standard, of course, is pretty high. During most of Rodriguez's tenure from 2001 through that 2007 season, West Virginia's defense was often an afterthought. And with the offensive numbers those teams put up, it was almost OK that until 2007 only one of those defensive units ranked among the top 30 in the country. In 2003 WVU won eight games with the nation's 74th-ranked defense. In 2006 the Mountaineers were 11-2 with a defense that was No. 62.
In the past four years, though, the bar has been raised significantly. Those last four defenses have ranked Nos. 8, 11, 31 and 3 in scoring.
Here, though, is the issue. Every one of those defenses had Scooter Berry starting at tackle (yes, even way back in the Fiesta Bowl). Chris Neild played in practically every one of those games. Ditto J.T. Thomas, Pat Lazear, Sidney Glover, Anthony Leonard, Hogan and even special teams whiz Trippe Hale. Robert Sands wasn't around for the Fiesta Bowl season, but he was a mainstay the last three years.
So this isn't a defense that is just losing guys who happened to step up at the end of their careers, but a solid core that contributed mightily throughout the last four seasons, which - at least statistically - was perhaps the best four-year defensive run in school history.
"It's going to be a big spring for us, no doubt, losing the caliber of kids we lost,'' Casteel said. "We lost seven kids and over half of them ended up at the [NFL] Combine. And when you look at who we lost and where it is in our defense, it's all spread out.''
That was also the case in 2007, when WVU lost two of its three starting linemen (Keilen Dykes and Johnny Dingle), two of the three linebackers (Marc Magro and, ultimately, Williams), and four of the five defensive backs (corners Larry Williams and Antonio Lewis and safeties Eric Wicks and Ryan Mundy). The third corner (Vaughn Rivers) and top safety off the bench (Ridwan Malik) were also seniors.