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Talent Meets Opportunity for WVU Defense

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Bridgeport HS grad Dylan Tonkery is in the mix at linebacker this year for the Mountaineers. (PHOTO: Geoff Coyle) Bridgeport HS grad Dylan Tonkery is in the mix at linebacker this year for the Mountaineers. (PHOTO: Geoff Coyle)
MORGANTOWN -

There comes a time for any collegiate athlete when talent must meet with opportunity. Take the opportunity away and that talented linebacker is wasting away on the bench. Take the talent away and that new starting safety is nothing more than a liability.

This offseason, WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson and his crew have seen what happens when they are able to give opportunities to their most talented players.

Al-Rasheed Benton recalls a time when he was one such player.

“I’ve been a guy who can play, but just didn’t have the experience under your belt,” Benton, a fifth-year senior linebacker, said. “So I understand, and I can’t wait for those guys to get out and show everybody what they’re ready to do. We’ve been putting in a lot of work.”

It took until Benton’s redshirt sophomore year to get significant playing time and much of that was initially due to an injury to starter Jared Barber. He has since become the center of the pregame huddles and a leader who the staff leans on to keep the players focused all season long.

“I just play with a lot of passion,” Benton said. “I play with a lot of fight and the guys know at the end of the day, I’ll lay it all out on the line for them. Because of that, they’re willing to follow me and they’re willing to go to war with me.”

It isn’t just his teammates, either. Benton’s coaches have a trust in him as one of the most experienced, knowledgeable players on defense.

“When we’re not here in the summer, Al’s running our defensive meetings,” Mountaineer assistant coach Mark Scott said of Benton. “Whether it’s as a full defense or whether it’s in the linebacker room, he’s really an extension of the coaching staff on the field.”

When fellow starting linebacker David Long went down with an injury that will cause him to miss some portion of the first month of the season, Benton began working with his group to find suitable replacements. He didn’t simply slide in different back-ups to the vacated Will position on the weak side. Instead, he tinkered with multiple lineups to see how WVU could get its three best players on the field at once.

Maybe that meant that Benton himself moved from Mike to Will and redshirt freshman Brendan Ferns slid in to handle the middle. Or perhaps Benton stayed put and another redshirt freshman, Dylan Tonkery, manned the weak side.

It was a method of experimentation to determine what would be the best course moving forward as the Mountaineers wait to regain Long’s services.

“A lot of our guys are interchangeable, so if we have a guy who needs a blow or we just want to kind of test out and see how things go with different people at different spots, we’re going to do that because our guys know the three different spots,” Scott said. “They know the defense, they know where they can fit and they can go in there without missing a beat in terms of alignments, assignments, everything like that.”

Currently, Benton is joined by another senior, Xavier Preston, in the starting three. Preston has been working for the opportunity to start at Sam linebacker for years now and this fall looks like the time when he will finally get that chance.

“Xavier’s been a big part of what we’ve done, especially in our nickel package the last few years,” Gibson said of Preston. “It’s his time, and he knows that, so he’s preparing the right way. He’s practicing the right way. He brings a lot of juice to the defense and talks a little bit too much at times, but if that’s what it takes to get everybody going, I’m good with it for now.”

Soon enough, the talk will need to be action.

Saturday brings the team’s first scrimmage and a chance to see how the linebackers, and every other position for that matter, look when live situations are presented. That is when the Mountaineers will get their first look at what happens when their inexperienced athletes get their chance in a starting position.

“One thing I’m seeing is that there’s a lot of talent,” Benton said. “That’s one thing you can’t coach. You can’t coach talent. There’s a lot of guys who are very talented, there’s a lot of guys who are very smart. The experience comes.”

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