MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - If it seems as if Will Clarke has been a part of West Virginia's football program a long, long time, well, it's because he has.
He was a part of Bill Stewart's first full recruiting class, one of just six fifth-year seniors this season who arrived as scholarship recruits in 2009. Of those six, only safety Darwin Cook (23) has started more games than Clarke's 22.
He's an iron man in the strictest sense of the word. When he earned Iron Mountaineer honors last spring for his work in the weight room, he became the first player in school history to do so three times.
He's played for teams that have averaged almost nine wins a year and won a BCS bowl game.
Yet as his final season approaches with the beginning of fall camp Thursday, Clarke has a bad taste in his mouth, and he wants to rid himself of it.
"We have been working hard,'' Clarke said. "But seeing how bad last season went for us defensively, everyone knows how bad it was, from outside to inside the program, and I don't want to repeat that. I don't want to go out that way.''
Indeed, as fall camp began amid so many questions about personnel at almost every position, the one that overrides all others concerns the defense for which Clarke plays. As last season proved, no matter what Dana Holgorsen manages to coax out of a rebuilt offense, it won't matter if the defense is as bad as it was in 2012.
There are signs of hope, of course. There always are. This year it comes in the form of a new defensive coordinator, Keith Patterson, and a year spent adjusting to life in the offensive-minded Big 12.
No matter the scheme, though, last season's performance begs the question of whether the Mountaineers just weren't very good. It's easy to say that schematically the defense was a failure, but at some point isn't it also fair to question those who were executing it?
Maybe they just were not that good.
"That never crossed my mind,'' Clarke said. "It's Division I football. Everyone is good. If everyone had handled their jobs we would have been better. But there were times when we weren't all there, all 11 guys, and it showed.''