With spring practice having concluded with the 2015 Gold-Blue Game in Morgantown on April 25th BlueGoldSports’ Data Analyst and Senior Writer Mark Fought breaks down each WVU football position group going into the long days of waiting for fall practice to begin. Today, the defensive line. Bruce Tall was named WVU’s defensive line coach on 7 January 2015, following a four-year engagement as the defensive coordinator at UNC-Charlotte. It is Tall’s second stint in Morgantown, having served as safeties coach from 2003-07 under then-head coach Rich Rodriguez. In his first tour of duty at WVU he helped guide the Mountaineers to four Big East titles, as well as the Fiesta Bowl in 2007, the Gator Bowl in 2003, 2004 and 2006 and the Sugar Bowl in 2005. As Tall takes the reins on the defensive front two questions come to mind: What did he inherit and what does he need to change in 2015? In 2014 WVU tied for 99th place amongst the 125 NCAA Division 1 teams (the lower 20th percentile) with just 20 sacks in its 13 total games and finished 9th in that same category in the Big 12’s official statistics, which do not incorporate bowl games, with 18 sacks in the 12 regular season games. In WVU’s 3-3-5 alignment there is often a fourth defender, in addition to the two defensive ends and the nose guard, rushing the quarterback – either the spur, a linebacker or a safety. So, while sacks are not the exclusive responsibility of defensive linemen, the quantity of them does provide one measure of a defensive line’s ability to put pressure on the opposing quarterback. The above statistics point to what has been an ongoing problem in Morgantown since the departure of Bruce Irvin to the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks – getting consistent pressure on the quarterback on opponent passing plays. That was one area of change that Tall focused on during WVU’s recently concluded spring practices. There was also nary a fumble recovered by a WVU defensive lineman in 2014. One would think that “dumb luck” would have resulted in at least one fumble recovery by a defensive lineman in 2014, but if there is such a thing WVU did not have any of it working in its favor last year. (WVU’s defense did have two fumble recoveries last season – one each by Terrell Chestnut and Dayron Wilson.) While it is also not the sole responsibility of defensive linemen to create and pounce upon fumbles by opposing players, having a goose egg in that category by the first layer of the defense was part of what was an overall problem for the entire WVU defense in 2014 – creating turnovers. West Virginia finished 113th among the 125 Division 1 teams in turnovers gained (the lowest 10th percentile). Creating turnovers was another change sought by Tall this spring and that quest will continue in August when fall camp begins. In terms of rushing defense WVU finished right in the middle – 63rd – amongst the 125 Division 1 teams in 2014, giving up 2,186 yards on 502 opponent carries for an average of 168.2 yards per game/4.35 yards per opponent rush attempt and allowing 20 opponent rushing touchdowns. In Big 12 statistics, WVU’s 1,951 yards on 454 carries (162.6 yards per game/4.30 yards per carry) placed the Mountaineers sixth in the conference’s official standings. Like the team sacks statistic, the rushing defense statistic doesn’t necessarily reflect the success or failure of a defensive line. In fact, in the 3-3-5 scheme it is often the linebackers who have primary run stopping responsibility and the role of the defensive linemen is to occupy blockers such that linebackers can have clearer paths to ball carriers. That said, the rushing defense statistic is another measure of a defensive line’s ability to do its job and WVU was a middle-of-the-pack squad in this area last season. Any defensive coach will say that making the opponent one-dimensional is a key and stopping the run to force the pass is a goal of any defensive coordinator; accordingly, greater run-stopping ability would be another welcome change in 2015. Starters on the 2014 WVU defensive line primarily consisted of Christian Brown, Kyle Rose and Dontrill Hyman, with Shaq Riddick coming on strong later in the year once he became more comfortable in the defensive scheme (after transferring into the Mountaineer program from tiny Garner-Webb in North Carolina, where he was an FCS All-American), coupled with Hyman’s season being diminished due to injury. Those four were spelled by Eric Kinsey, Darrien Howard and Noble Nwachukwu. Of those seven players only two exhausted their eligibility – Hyman and Riddick. (Riddick was taken in the fifth round of the recent NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals – the 158th overall pick. Hyman has not, as of this article’s writing, signed an NFL free agent contract.) So, there is relatively decent depth returning on the defensive front, as the five returnees – Brown, Howard, Kinsey, Nwachukwu and Rose – saw action in 55 games (out of 65 game opportunities). Rose leads the pack with 38 career games played, followed by Kinsey with 31, Brown with 26, Nwachukwu with 22 and Howard with 12. Between the five, however, there are only 5 career sacks. Larry Jefferson, a junior college transfer from Itawamba Community College (ICC) in Fulton, MS, enrolled in January and may be the edge rusher extraordinaire the Mountaineers have been seeking. His D line teammate at ICC, Xavier Pegues, will also be a Mountaineer this fall. ICC has a history of producing quality defensive linemen, including former NFL’ers Norm Hand and Tim Bowens and former FSU Seminole Anthony McCloud, and Jefferson hopes to be the latest former Indian to add his name to ICC’s D linemen honor roll. Generally, there are more DLs ready for game action in 2015 than in recent WVU seasons, giving Tall plenty of tools to work with. Let’s look at each 2015 defensive linemen in terms of where they are projected by position, their location on the depth chart and other factors. We’ll start with the player with the most returning games played, Kyle Rose. Kyle Rose (NG, r-Sr, 6’-4”, 294, Centreville, OH) Rose’s journey along the defensive line at WVU has been an interesting one. He started as a nose guard (NG) under former WVU DL coach Bill Kirelawich, then started 6 games in 2013 at defensive end under then-DL coach Erik Slaughter, then last season he and Brown swapped positions with Rose moving back to the nose guard slot while Brown moved to the end position. To make the move Rose bulked up while Brown shed a few pounds to get lighter for edge rushing opportunities. Rose has a total of 20 game starts entering 2015. The Buckeye State product has a wrestling background and seems to love contact, but lacks speed and burst, so he is better suited to the nose guard role than on the outside. Ideally, Rose can add some more weight over the summer to get over the 300-pound barrier. The NG’s job may be one of the least glamorous in all of football. The primary responsibility of the NG is to occupy two offensive linemen, thereby creating a favorable numbers advantage for his defensive teammates. An NG has to keep his shoulders square (parallel) to the line of scrimmage to maintain engagement with the offensive linemen and to retain his position in the middle of the field or the defensive scheme breaks down. Occasionally the NG can be called upon for penetration of the offensive line and, in doing so, will bring his shoulders more vertical to knife his way through opposing lineman, but more often than not the goal is simply to tie up two offensive linemen – a task much easier said than done. It is not a position for the faint of heart and is one of, if not the, most physically taxing positions on the football field. On a few plays this fall, instead of watching the ball’s movement and the players possessing it, watch the nose guard. Is he routinely occupying two offensive linemen? Is he keeping his position in the middle of the field? Is he able to overcome the numbers disadvantage and get at least some push backwards (from the offensive linemen’s vantage point)? As a senior Rose will need to demonstrate good leadership and a mishap outside a Morgantown establishment in the spring did not exactly enamor him with the coaches in that regard. You can bet the mortgage that Rose became intimately familiar with the steps in the stands at Mountaineer Field – every single one of them – at rather odd hours of the day this spring. That unfortunate episode aside, Rose has generally been regarded as a “good citizen” during his WVU career and he’ll be counted on as the primary man in the middle for the Mountaineer defensive line in 2014. Christian Brown (DE, r-So., 6’-2”, 294, Ft. Myers, FL) Brown will man one of the two starting defensive ends positions. Brown lacks blazing speed and will need to rely more on good technique and leverage to get around or through tackles and tight ends that he’ll encounter on Saturdays this fall. Just a sophomore, Brown has already gained quite a bit of experience and looks to have a long and productive WVU career still in front of him. Noble Nwachukwu (DE, r-Jr., 6’-2”, 271, Wylie, TX) Nwachukwu (pronounced wah-CHOO-koo), who has one of the funnest last names to utter in all of Division 1, ended the spring as the starter opposite Brown at defensive end on the depth chart. He has 13 WVU game starts to his credit. At just 271 pounds he needs to add some bulk over the summer and should do so in Mike Joseph’s rigorous strength and conditioning program. Nwachukwu finished second in unassisted tackles amongst the Mountaineer DLs in 2014 with 21 (to Riddick’s 24) and has demonstrated the largely undefinable but definitely recognizable “nose for the football”. However, he will be pushed for playing time by . . . Larry Jefferson (DE, Jr., 6’-5”, 225, College Park, GA) Jefferson demonstrated his God-given gift of speed by running the 200- and 400-meter events in high school (and also was a standout on the basketball court) and has retained much of that speed as his body has grown. At 225 pounds he, like Nwachukwu, needs to add some pounds to his frame, but Jefferson showed the coaches what he is capable of with 5 tackles in the Gold-Blue Game – 3.5 of them resulting in a loss – and two sacks. In his post-Gold-Blue Game press conference, head coach Dana Holgorsen stated that, “He’s [Jefferson] frustrating to go against because his motor just runs and runs and runs.” Holgorsen said he also told Jefferson, “I can’t wait to watch you do that to [put pressure on] opposing quarterbacks. Would you please quit doing that to ours!” That’s about as good of an indication as one can get that Jefferson will see the field for many snaps in 2015. Eric Kinsey (DE, Sr., 6’-3”, 278, Miami, FL) Kinsey will enter fall camp at No. 2 on the depth chart behind Nwachuwku. Kinsey stated in the post-Gold-Blue game press conference that he wanted to improve his BMI (body mass index) over the summer. That means he wants to lower his body fat while retaining weight and exhaustive training in the summer should accomplish that goal. Ideally, Kinsey could add another 10 pounds and be better suited for the pounding that defensive linemen take. As a senior this is Kinsey’s last go-round at the collegiate level and he wants to make it a good one. The gap between he and Nwachukwu is not a significant one, allowing the coaches flexibility at this position. Darrien Howard (NG, Jr., 6’-1”, 295, Dayton, OH) Howard will back-up Rose at the nose position this fall, but should see several snaps during game action. Howard is a bit more squat in body shape terms than Rose, which isn’t a detriment at all for the nose position. His high water mark in 2014 was against Oklahoma State, where he recorded 4 total tackles, including 2 solos, and 0.5 tackles for a loss (TFL). He may also see some action on special teams. Xavier Peques (DE, Jr., 6’-3”, 285, Oxford, MS) Pegues (pronounced PIG-ease), like Jefferson, originally committed to WVU, then flipped to Iowa State, then switched back to the Mountaineers and will join fellow Itawamba product Jefferson in Morgantown this summer. If there is a “wild card” that could juggle the DL depth chart when camp unfolds in August it is him. Peques is more of a weak side edge rusher, meaning he’d ideally line up on the non-Tight End side of the line. He is athletic, having also played some tight end at ICC. He will enter camp behind the players already mentioned simply by not having gone through WVU’s spring drills, but the Mississippi native has a solid frame for the position at 6’-3” and 285 pounds and could move up the depth chart as fall camp progresses. Jon Lewis (r-So., 6’-3”, 261, Morgantown, WV) Lewis will battle Brown and Jefferson for playing time in the fall and should see a few snaps in game action. As a Morgantown native he’s driven to see the field for his hometown team. While he’ll likely see less snaps than Brown or Jefferson he could see situational duty and, if the injury bug bites those above him on the depth chart, Lewis could be pressed into extended duty. Other defensive linemen hoping to impress the coaches and earn some playing time in 2015 include: Dontae Angus (r-Fr., 6’-7”, 318, Philadelphia, PA). Angus was the player that got WVU to the full allotment of 85 scholarship players. He flipped from Florida to the Mountaineers on National Letter of Intent (Signing) Day in February of last year. He has tremendous size at 6’-7” and has had to slim down to get under the 320-pound barrier.
- DJ. Carozza (r-So., 5’-11”, 295, Parkersburg, WV). It is always good having a West Virginia product in every position group and Cardozza fills that role while providing quality depth.
Jaleel Fields (r-Fr., 6’-1”, 284, Aliquippa, PA). Fields is more of a strong side rusher, similar to Brown. Like Angus, he’s gotten his redshirt year under his belt and a year in the strength and conditioning program.
- J. Maduewesi (r-Jr., 6’-9”, 238, Bronx, NY). Like Angus, Maduewesi is another unusually tall lineman at 6’-9” but just 238 pounds – a build more suitable to have Bob Huggins as his coach than Dana Holgorsen.
Tyree Owens (r-Fr., 6’-4”, 265, Ovieda, FL) Owens has relatively good speed and is destined for an edge rusher role as his Mountaineer career progresses. Beginning their collegiate defensive linemen careers this fall are a pair of central Florida recruits in the 2015 recruiting class – Adam Shuler, a 6’-5”, 255 pounder out of Longwood Lyman High School who was an elite discus thrower in high school and Alec Shriner, a 6’-4”, 285 pounder from Ovieda who was a teammate of Owens in high school. Both will likely redshirt to gain bulk and strength while learning the ropes on the practice squad. Up next, the linebackers.