With middle linebacker being one of the most critical positions for the Mountaineers the last few seasons, losing Josh Chandler-Semendo to the transfer portal was undoubtedly a blow to Neal Brown’s defense. However, West Virginia did add several players through recruiting and the transfer portal that will improve the speed of the linebackers and the entire defense. Although there has been turnover in the linebacker room, many fresh faces will look to contribute as returners step into leadership roles immediately. While it will take time for this unit to reach its full potential, the linebackers will look to improve upon their play from a season ago. 

Bandits (Outside Linebackers):

One returning face to the linebacker corps is Jared Bartlett, a redshirt sophomore from Miami, Florida. Bartlett has played 27 games for the Mountaineers, with five starts, so he does have valuable experience in Jordan Lesley’s defense. In thirteen games last year and three starts, the outside linebacker racked up three and a half sacks, fifteen solo stops, and a fumble recovery. Bartlett earned a spot on the All-Big 12 Conference Fourth Team, according to Phil Steel, and received the 2022 Iron Man Mountaineer Award. While the Miami product does have the most experience in the bandit position, Bartlett is competing for his job against another sophomore.

When West Virginia released their depth chart about a month ago, the bandit position read ‘Jared Bartlett OR Lanell Carr.’ While Bartlett has been with the program longer, Carr has earned an opportunity to compete with Bartlett for the starting role. Although officially listed as a defensive lineman on West Virginia’s roster, Carr saw time in the bandit position last year. In the ten games he saw the field, the true sophomore started two games at the bandit position. The linebacker’s ability to get off the ball quickly and dip his shoulders to maneuver around offensive tackles could help Carr take the starting position. While Neal Brown might wait until closer to September 1st to announce a starter, Mountaineers fans will want to closely monitor this battle with so much turnover among the linebackers. 

Weakside Linebackers:

Unlike the bandit position, where there is an open competition, Lance Dixon, a redshirt sophomore from West Bloomfield, Michigan, is the starter for the weakside or Will linebacker spot. The former Penn State product transferred to Morgantown last year and immediately contributed to the defense. Dixon saw the field in ten games last year, starting in four matchups. However, the linebacker missed the final three regular-season contests due to injury. In the Guaranteed Rates Bowl against Minnesota, Dixon tallied 11 tackles against the gophers, a career-high. The Michigan product looks to pick up where he left off in the bowl game. However, if Dixon does sustain another injury, he will be replaced by one of the most experienced players on the Mountaineers roster. 

Exree Loe has been with the West Virginia football program since 2017, a remarkable feat. Nowadays, it is common for a player to transfer for a NIL deal, a starting role, or to leave school early for the NFL draft. Loe’s commendable dedication to the Mountaineers program is unheralded, especially given his circumstances. Although Loe has seen the field since his redshirt freshman year, in 2021, the linebacker caught on at the WILL linebacker position, starting seven of the contests. Unfortunately, the Johnstown, Pennsylvania product suffered a season-ending injury against Kansas State. While Dixon does have the athletic ability and rare speed for his size to take the starting role, if Loe finds his way on the field, he will undoubtedly help the defense. 

Middle Linebackers:

While the bandit and WILL positions have returning starters, Lee Kpogba will immediately take the middle linebacker position and lead the defensive side of the ball. Before attending East Mississippi Community College, Kpogba played at Syracuse, where he appeared in eleven games and tallied 11 tackles and a sack. While these numbers might not be stunning, the reviews of Kpogba out of Morgantown this spring and summer are outstanding. Defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley has already named Kpogba the clear starter for the mike position and expects him to quarterback the Mountaineer’s defense. While the junior has had a windy path in his college career, Kpogba has undoubtedly found a home in Morgantown. 

While Kpogba has supplanted himself as a starter, Tirek Austin-Cave, another new face on West Virginia’s defense, is eager to prove himself on the field. Although Austin-Cave might have to wait a season to crack the starting lineup, his potential remains high. Coming out of Camden high school, the linebacker committed to Miami, where he primarily played special teams. His lean frame, broad shoulders, and excellent body control give him the ideal physical traits to become a productive player for the Mountaineers. While Austin-Cave will probably have to wait a season to see significant playing time at middle linebacker, his future in Morgantown looks bright. 

Additional Linebackers:

While Wil Schoonover’s path onto the West Virginia roster is not conventional, he clearly has shown heart in chasing his dream. The Moorefield, West Virginia native had a decorated career in high school. Schoonover earned three selections to the all-state team as a linebacker and one all-state selection as a running back. While the linebacker planned to walk on at West Virginia, the Moorefield native chose to join the army due to ineligibility hurdles. Schoonover served in Afghanistan starting in 2017 and decided to give football another shot in 2020. After attending West Virginia’s ‘Take Me Home Camp’ in 2021, the linebacker joined the team as a walk-on later that year after sorting out his eligibility requirements. While Schoonover did not see game action last season, the redshirt sophomore continues to live out his dream of playing for West Virginia. 

The only true freshman linebacker this season is Trey Lathan, a three-star from Goulds, Florida. His burst allows him to quickly close gaps and shift through traffic effectively. Lathan is accompanied by two other redshirt freshmen, Jario Faverus and Caden Biser. Faverus was a three-star recruit from Bristol Academy, while Caden Biser is a walk-on from Morgantown. Although these three will likely have to wait a couple of years to see the field, their potential may give them a chance to take on a significant role for the linebacker unit in the years to come. 

Photo by William Wotring (The Dominion Post)