MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The West Virginia Mountaineers linebacker corps looks to be an experienced and resilient group. Originally returning two of three starters, the WVU defense took an unexpected loss this offseason to linebacker David Long, who will miss the first month of the season with a knee injury. With a temporary loss to a key player, the WVU defense will have to manage without their WILL linebacker for the first month of the season.
Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is losing his SAM linebacker from last season, too, in Justin Arndt. The graduating senior accounted for 84 tackles, three sacks, and a forced fumble in 2016. Replacing last year’s leading tackler for the Mountaineers will be difficult, but Coach Gibson has options at the SAM position.
Senior Xavier Preston is the early favorite to replace Ardnt at the SAM position. Preston saw the field 120 times last year (not including special teams), posting 11 tackles and a sack in a backup role. Standing at 6-foot-2, 238 pounds, the senior from Stuart, FL, adds stout size compared to Arndt’s 5-11 212-pound frame. Appearing in 32 career games, Preston is the front runner to hold down the strong side of the defense on the back end of the front seven.
Clipping at the heels of Preston, is sophomore Adam Hensley. The Centreville, OH, native adds depth and competition at SAM Linebacker. Hensley does not bring the same amount of experience as Preston, but Hensley brings the same amount of size at 6-2, 229. Mostly used on special teams last season, Hensley will likely see time at both SAM and WILL linebacker positions, making him the utility man of the bunch.
On the other side of the linebacker corp at the WILL position, redshirt-sophomore David Long was supposed to return to build off of his ten starts and 13 appearances from last season. After making his first start against Kansas State last season, Long had excelled and not looked back. But after sustaining a meniscus injury in summer workouts, Long will have to wait to build on his freshman year. So to fill his role, Coach Gibson will have to try a few different options.
First in line could be Hensley. His prior experience at the position and familiarity with the playbook makes him likely first in line to replace Long. Behind Hensley will be hybrid safety/linebacker Dylan Tonkery. Tonkery, 6-0, 214 pounds, provides imposing size but a lack of experience at the college level. The Bridgeport, native coming off of his redshirt season, will get a chance to prove his versatility early, with the loss to Long.
And at the heart of the linebacker corp in the middle will be a very familiar face for the Mountaineer faithful. Redshirt-senior Al-Rasheed Benton will be returning at the MIKE linebacker position.The 6-foot, 237-pound linebacker from New Jersey returns with 39 career games played to go along with starting all 13 games from last season. Benton, was second on the team in tackles with 80 and three quarterback hits. Benton brings the most experience to the linebacker corp, and it will show during the season.
The linebacker group is the proven group on the defensive side of the ball. When Long returns after the first month of the season, the Mountaineers will have two of three projected starters with 30 plus games under their belt. Making the linebacker corp the most proven group on the defensive side of the ball.
Players to watch in the position group: Hodari Christian and Brendan Ferns
(Feature Photo Credit: Kelsie LeRose, BGS)