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Asti: There Are Signs That Point to the WVU Defense Being Much Better



Jared Bartlett and Aubrey Burks and WVU defense

If the 2023 Mountaineers are going to win more than they did in 2022, the WVU defense is going to have to be much better.

The defensive issues were often overshadowed by the belief the offense wasn’t good enough last season. And while the offense certainly had its issues and was not good enough, it was the defense that let West Virginia down most of all. But there’s a belief around the program that the defense will get back to its stellar play prior to 2022. It might sound crazy to say a unit that lost its best player from a season ago will be better off, but it’s definitely possible.

There’s no denying Dante Stills’ departure is a hit. It would be ignorant to deny that. However, Stills graduating and advancing his career to the NFL opens up space for others, in particular the group Stills left behind – the defensive line.

With Stills on the Arizona Cardinals, players like Sean Martin and Eddie Vesterinen will be cast into bigger roles. They can now take what they learned from Stills and the experience they have gained to this point and use that to fill the void of a future WVU Sports Hall of Famer. It may take two men to replace one, but West Virginia has the depth.

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But if WVU’s defense is going to become a strength of the team again, it will need to enjoy some luck too. The inability to force turnovers compounded every other problem and made life miserable for the Mountaineers. That’s where turning up the dial on physicality comes in.

All offseason head coach Neal Brown and defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley have been beating physicality into the defense. The intensity of linebackers Lee Kpogba and Jared Bartlett and transfer defensive back Anthony Wilson has been rubbing off on the rest of the defense during practice. Being more physical could accomplish a couple things. It could lead to turnovers and also keep enduring big plays to a minimum.

Aubrey Burks, who has a new energy about him, has been called a “ball hawk” by teammates and Beanie Bishop has a desire to get his hands on the ball. Jacolby Spells could be poised to take a jump in production. Burks 2.0, the addition of Bishop and Spells learning from past mistakes could trigger an abundance of interceptions and takeaways going West Virginia’s way thanks to the secondary.

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It even appears the WVU defense has the intangibles it was missing a season ago too. Even though they are now without one true star and person to look up to for guidance, there are more players comfortable being leaders.

Martin is teaching younger players on the line. Burks is getting to the facility early and convincing other players to study plays and watch film with him, so much so that he’s being referred to as an extension of the coaching staff. The players all say the communication that was lacking is now evident and there’s even a newfound chemistry that’s extending to a stronger bond, both on and off the field.

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“It’s basically a whole knew defense. We did bring back starters, but we have a bunch of new guys. I feel like the chemistry is better this year. We are always hanging out together and watching film because we didn’t like the results last year,” said Kpogba.

So it’s very possible the necessary work was put in, the focus on fundamentals will reduce the amount of missed tackles, the physical nature of the practices and the attitude of the new leadership could all combined for a far better showing from the defense moving forward.

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