During the Dana Holgorsen era, the West VirginiaUniversity football program has struggled to find a defensive identity. That is not an opinion; rather it’s a factual statement.
The Mountaineers are in the midst of their fourth defensive coordinator in as many years. Not only have defensive schemes changed during that time, but the personnel have also been on a circulating carousel on a yearly basis.
But now heading into the fourth year of Holgorsen’s tenure, there seems to be a growth amongst the defense – or even an elevated sense of hope inside the locker room, that the team will be able to count on the defense to come up with a stop when they need it most.
Where is that rise in defensive optimism coming from? Well, for one, experience can do wonders on a unit’s confidence.
That experience is coming straight from the Mountaineer linebacker corps, who plans on leading the WVU defense back to its days of instilling fear into each and every opponent.
“Yes, I do,” WVU junior linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski said, when asked if he thought the experience amongst the linebackers would help lead the defense. “We have a lot of people coming back. We have a lot of athletes. I mean, I think the depth is really going to help us this year.”
“The fact that they like to compete,” Mountaineer junior linebacker Isaiah Bruce said, referring to his excitement for the group of WVU linebackers. “Nobody wants to be second string or third string. Everybody wants that starting spot. So with that much competition and that much depth, it’s going to make our corps really strong.”
Similar to the running back rotation on the opposite side of the ball, the linebacker corps will be the unit to watch on defense throughout the season.
The WVU linebacker discussion starts and ends with Nick Kwiatkoski. The redshirt junior from Bethel Park, Pennsylvania led the entire team with 86 tackles last year. He also ranked 30th nationally in solo tackles.
“I’m just trying to improve speed and footwork – things like that. I’m just trying to get into the film room and [work on] my mental game. That’s probably my biggest thing that I need to work on is my mental game and just being able to read things faster,” Kwiatkoski said.
Isaiah Bruce is another linebacker that will see extensive time on the field. Bruce was immensely productive during his freshman season, but hit a rough patch during his sophomore campaign, only tallying a total of 46 tackles throughout the 2013 season.
Bruce admitted that the change in defensive scheme last year had a role in his drop in production.
“I definitely feel more comfortable inside rather than outside,” Bruce said. “I feel like I can see more rather than just one side of the ball, and I can react both ways rather than just one [way].”
The Mountaineers have since switched from a 3-4 defense to a 3-3-5, or otherwise known as an odd stack defense for the upcoming season. New defensive coordinator Tony Gibson and associate head coach Tom Bradley were brought in to ‘simplify’ the defensive scheme, which they hope leads to an elimination of the guessing game that was attached to last year’s troubles.
Jared Barber was as productive as ever last season, tallying 71 tackles on the year, which was good enough for third on the team. Although his season came to an end courtesy of a knee injury against Texas, Barber still proved to be a valuable asset to the linebacker corps. The senior from North Carolina will see plenty of action once again this season.
He does not believe that experience is a determining quality. Instead, it’s all about who prepares in a manner to get themselves ready for the season, and arrives aware of what needs to be done.
“I’m not a big ‘experience’ guy personally,” Barber admitted. “I think if you’re ready to play, then you’re ready to play. But obviously, you can see where they’re coming from, especially with the big atmospheres that we play in. We went to Texas with over 100,000 people. It kind of gets guys spooked a little bit – butterfly’s and stuff. Maybe it scrambles their mind a little bit. But the people who have played, got experience, and got playing time under their belt, they can kind of zone out the crowd and just focus on playing.”
Brandon Golson may be the most athletic among WVU’s linebacker corps. Golson ended the season with a mediocre 41 tackles. But there was a much more telling statistic that proved his worth to the unit.
The senior from South Carolina notched five forced fumbles last year. That number was tops in the Big XII Conference, along with being number two nationally. He also added four sacks as well.
Other contributors to the group will include Shaq Petteway and Wes Tonkery – two players who will have something to prove following season ending injuries to both. Also, senior Jewone Snow should provide even more depth at the position.
The addition of former Mountaineer linebacker Anthony Leonard may prove to be a wild card in the emergence of the group. Leonard was brought on as a graduate assistant coach in April, with the hope of providing coaching and insight on how to approach the game.
“The experience does help,” Kwiatkoski added. “I do feel better – more comfortable just by coming in. I’ve been here for a while now. So yeah, I do feel more comfortable as I keep moving on.”
The linebackers’ familiarity within the program and conference cannot be questioned. WVU will feature a linebacker rotation of seven players, with all being either juniors or seniors.
Experience is an important piece to the puzzle, but at the end of the day, it’s still about results on the field. Holgorsen will be looking to ride the play of his linebackers, who will ultimately decide if his defense ever earns an identity under his watch.