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 linebackers.
There may be no more critical of a position on a football team’s defense than the middle linebacker. “The Mike” as it is often referred to is the quarterback of the defense. Typically lining up right in front of, and about 4-5 yards behind, the center, on almost every play the Mike has to:
- Observe the opposing offense’s configuration as they break the huddle and line up. (In facing “no huddle” offenses these reads must be made even faster.)
- Quickly review his defense’s formation versus the offense’s configuration and bark out the necessary adjustments in terms of where his defensive teammates need to be lined up based on what the offense is showing with its formation.
- As the play begins to unfold, read the initial actions of the center and the guards. Are they drive blocking, trap blocking or pulling, indicating a running play? Or, are they more erect immediately following the snap, indicating they are moving into pass protection? On running plays where, specifically, are the opposing linemen attempting to drive the defensive linemen, indicating the offense’s attempt to open up a running lane where the blockers are trying to vacate that lineman? (On running plays between the tackles the Mike has primary run stopping responsibility and also provides some backside help on sweep plays.)
- In passing situations, after ascertaining the play is indeed a pass, the Mike then switches to reading the quarterback’s eyes and drops into midfield coverage or covers the running back coming out of the backfield.
With all of the above going on in the span of a second and a half, typically, the Mike has to be not just a strong, fast player but a cerebral and quick reacting one, as well. Considerable film study of the opposing offense’s tendencies is another “must” for a successful Mike.
Good defenses typically have stellar middle linebackers that practically act as “coaches on the field”. They have an instinctive feel for the flow of the football and are often a defense’s leading tackler. They are frequently referred to as “the heart and soul” of a defense.
In fifth year senior Jared Barber (6’-0”, 232, Mocksville, NC) WVU has a player that can execute all of the above responsibilities routinely and efficiently.
Barber sat out all of 2014 recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee suffered late in 2013 but was with the team all season long, practically acting like a Graduate Assistant coach. He has 13 career starts to his credit and has seen action in 32 games as a Mountaineer. Barber is the clear-cut No. 1 on the depth chart at the Mike position for the Mountaineers entering the 2015 campaign and is the unquestioned leader of the WVU defense.
Backing up Barber will be redshirt sophomore Al-Rasheed Benton. Benton (6’-1”, 235, Newark, NJ) has progressed nicely since his redshirt year of 2013, but there is a considerable drop-off in experience when Barber isn’t on the field; that’s not a knock on Benton at all but simply a matter-of-fact observation in that Benton has zero career starts to his credit. Benton did see action in all 13 games in 2014, though, and after serving this year under Barber as sort of an apprentice year Benton could be set up to be the starter in 2016 if he has a decent 2015 campaign.
Behind Benton is Martinsburg’s Justin Arndt (r-Jr., 5’-11”, 210, Martinsburg, WV), the walk-on of the year award winner from last season (announced at the Gold-Blue Game) and the recipient of a freshly minted scholarship this spring. Arndt has a work ethic second to none and having a West Virginian in this position group to convey state pride to his fellow linebackers is a plus. He has seen action in 22 games thus far in his Mountaineer career.
On either side of Barber in the Mountaineers’ 3-3-5 alignment as No. 1’s coming out of spring practice are a pair of redshirt seniors at the strong side linebacker (the “Sam”) and the weak side linebacker (the “Will”) positions, respectively.
The Sam linebacker will typically line up 6-7 yards behind the line of scrimmage. If the opposing offense uses a Tight End (TE) the Sam will line up with the TE; if the offense doesn’t use a TE the Sam will typically line up between the tackle and the inside slot receiver on the side of the line of scrimmage where the most receivers are deployed (hence, making it the offense’s “strong side”). If there is a TE in the offensive formation then that will be the Sam’s initial read. If the TE fires off the line of scrimmage and sustains his block the read is for a running play and the Sam will come forward for gap filling in run support, particularly if the flow of the play is to his side; if the flow is away from the Sam he will maintain his assigned position to guard against the running back cutting back (shifting gears to run opposite the direction of the play’s initial left or right flow). If the TE releases from his block relatively quickly the Sam will read that a pass is coming and drop back into pass coverage, guarding primarily against a throw into the flat or a curl route. Because the Sam is often taking on Tight Ends the position demands a stronger, larger frame than that of the Mike or the Will, yet also demands good speed – particularly lateral speed.
Nick Kwiatkowski (6’-2”, 235, Bethel Park, PA) manned the Mike position last season and led the team in tackles with 71 (as he did in 2013 with 54), but Barber‘s return moves Kwiatkowski outside to the Sam position. Kwiatkowski may be the most overlooked quality linebacker in the Big 12. “Kwit” has more tackles for loss (18) than any returning linebacker (Isaiah Bruce is second with 15). Kwiatkwoski has a good frame and size for the Sam but lacks blazing speed, which he compensates for with excellent instintcs and assignment savvy play.
Pressing Kwiatkowski at the Sam is true sophomore Xavier Preston (6’-2”, 240, Jensen Beach, FL), who made tremendous strides throughout the spring. Preston saw the field in 8 games as a true freshman in 2014 and recorded one solo tackle and two assists. Coming into the program at 220 pounds, Preston is now a chiseled 240 pounds, making him WVU’s biggest linebacker. Barber lauded Preston‘s learning abilities during the spring and Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson raved about his explosiveness. Preston started out as a Mountaineer at the Will but given his developing combination of strength, size and burst he’s been moved to the Sam. He will give Kwiatkowski some rest on game days with little, if any, drop-off in capability, but a lack of experience versus that of Kwiatkowski will place him second on the depth chart.
Redshirt senior Isaiah Bruce (6’-1”, 234, Jacksonville, FL) is currently third on the depth chart at the Sam. Bruce had a good redshirt freshman year in 2012 when he finished second on the team in tackles with 94, including 51 solos, but has fallen back on the depth chart, with 43 total tackles in ’13 and just 15 last year. However, it is a very good “problem” to have when you have two redshirt seniors and a coming-on-like-gangbusters sophomore vying for playing time at one position. Preston and Bruce both will likely get plenty of snaps with which to prove their worth in 2015.
The Will linebacker is typically the fastest of the linebackers in a 3-3-5 or a 4-3 defensive alignment. He is usually assigned to cover the slot receiver on the weak side and provides run support like the Sam. He also provides backside pursuit of running plays moving away from his side of the field. The Will wants to turn any running play to his side of the field outside-in, i.e., turn a running back trying to go to the edge on a sweep back toward the middle of the field where defensive help awaits. Because offenses more often than not run toward their strong side, the Will has the primary responsibility on cutbacks/changes in direction. If a running back has success on a cutback run it may be due to the Will overreacting and being over exuberant in run support. Patience is indeed a virtue for a Will, more so than the Mike or the Sam, as the Will has to wait to make sure a cutback, or a reverse, is not headed his way. When a defense stops a reverse it is often because the Will was patient, read the play and then reacted properly to prevent a big gainer.
It speaks to WVU’s linebacking depth that Shaq Petteway (6’-0”, 230, Stuebenville, OH) has overtaken Edward Muldrow III (6’-3”, 215, Snellwood, GA via Mississippi’s Copiah-Lincoln Community College), who started the last 8 games of 2014, on the depth chart at the Will position heading into fall camp. Like Barber, Petteway is an “old man” on the defense as he and Barber are the last remnants of the 2011 recruiting class at linebacker. Petteway took his redshirt year in 2013 after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the preseason. Petteway and Muldrow are almost interchangeable as there is not a significant drop-off with one in the line-up versus the other. This should be a very spirited competition during fall camp and by no means has the depth chart been solifidied at this position. Redshirt junior Sean Walters (6’-2”, 238, Hollywood, FL) will spell Petteway and Muldrew.
Other linebackers on the roster hoping for playing time are a trio of redshirt sophomores: Alex Brooks (5’-11”, 225, Cleveland, OH), Hodari Christian (6’-0”, 225, McKeesport, PA) and Marvin Gross, Jr. (6’-2”, 215, Baltimore, MD).
Beginning his Mountaineer career at linebacker this August is 2015 recruiting class signee David Long (6’-0”, 218), an inside linebacker from Cincinnati, OH. With no freshmen linebackers on the roster and just Long in the 2015 class linebacker will be a recruiting focus area for WVU in 2016.
While WVU’s defense did struggle mightily to create turnovers (113th of 125) in 2014 the Mountaineers were 9th in third down defense and 15th in three-and-outs, demonstrating a propensity to limit opponents’ drives. If Tony Gibson’s charges can maintain the third down and three-and-out numbers from 2014 in 2015 while adding some turnovers caused to the equation the Mountaineer defense of 2015 could become a feared and ferocious unit. With an experienced and deep linebacking corps West Virginia fans everywhere hope for just that beginning on September the 6th when the Mountaineers open against Georgia Southern at Milan Puskar Stadium.
Up next, the defensive backfield. You can read the prior articles from the post-spring series below.