SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Jeff Casteel has spent the first half of West Virginia's football season trying to piece together West Virginia's defense and seems well on his way to succeeding.
That's the good news. After a sometimes uneven start, WVU is now ranked No. 16 in the country in total defense and hasn't given up a touchdown in seven quarters.
The even better news is that Casteel is now beginning to get all of the parts back at his disposal, too.
Heading into tonight's game with Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, West Virginia's defensive coordinator has virtually a full complement of players. Defensive lineman Julian Miller appears as strong as he's been since suffering an ankle injury during the preseason. and the secondary has managed to pretty much maintain its health.
But most significantly, Casteel's linebacking corps - the weakest link in WVU's defensive rebuilding process this season - is as strong as it has been.
Sophomore linebacker Doug Rigg is expected to be able to play tonight after missing two games with a broken bone in his wrist. Redshirt freshman Jewone Snow is vastly improved after replacing Rigg and gaining experience. All in all, the Mountaineers seem to have at least five linebackers who can share time.
Not bad for a team that went into the season with only one proven commodity, Najee Goode, at the position.
"Doug will play. Jewone will play,'' Casteel said. "We'll play everybody and it gives us more flexibility now. We can do different things with Naj and Doug.''
Indeed, with Rigg back - although it is still unclear how much he will play this soon - it gives Casteel all kinds of flexibility that he didn't have just a few weeks ago. When the season started, Goode played in the middle (Mike), but he's equally adept at all three spots. Rigg was a first-time starter on the strong side (Sam), as was Casey Vance on the weak side (Will).
The only other player in the equation was junior-college transfer Josh Francis, but he couldn't wrestle the starting job from Vance because he hadn't adapted to a higher level of play and the system. No one other than Goode was adept at playing more than one position.
Rigg's injury, ironically, might have been the best thing that could have happened. It forced Snow into the lineup, and he had to play Mike. Goode went back to Sam, where he played last season, and Vance and Francis continued to alternate at Will.
Now, with Rigg back, Casteel has two middle linebackers (Snow and Goode), two Sams (Rigg and Goode) and perhaps four Wills (Vance, Francis, Goode and Rigg).