Will the defense be good enough? Will the defense improve from last year, despite losing key players? Will the defense actually stop someone? These are all questions defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is constantly, repeatedly forced to answer this preseason. Despite the heckling, he seems confident in his unit.
During Gibson’s tenure as a defensive coordinator at West Virginia, he has fielded some pretty good defenses. Last year qualifies as more of an anomaly. The Mountaineers finished dead last in the Big 12 last year in rush defense, but in previous years under Gibson, they finished third, first and seventh. Defending the pass game has never been much of an issue under Gibson — the worst WVU finished was 6th, and that was in 2016, when it had the third best overall defense in the league.
The defense will have to fill the void of Adam Shuler and Lamonte McDougle, but with the additions of grad transfers Kenny Bigelow Jr. and Jabril Robinson, this is probably a net gain for West Virginia.
Not only are they talented, but the fact that they come from winning cultures (USC and Clemson, respectively) is huge. Gibson himself believes the addition of Bigelow and Robinson will have far-reaching effects.
“We needed that type of leadership in the room,” Gibson told us during practice last week. “Kenny didn’t put his four years in at West Virginia – he put them in at USC – but the guys respect that he’s been through it. Same for what Jabril did at Clemson.”
Along with Robinson and Bigelow, West Virginia returns starters Ezekiel Rose and Reese Donahue, both of whom are both poised for breakout seasons this fall. Nose tackle Darius Stills showed promise late last season and should be a valuable piece to the defensive front, as should his younger brother Dante.
What appeared to be an offseason concern has turned into an potential strength for the Mountaineers.
“We have about nine guys in the rotation,” said defensive line coach Bruce Tall. “They’re all going to play. We feel comfortable enough that if we play 90 snaps, all nine can give us 30 snaps each and we can stay fresh.”
Elsewhere, the safeties may be the most proven group, as they returns veteran DBs Dravon Askew-Henry, Toyous Avery and JoVanni Stewart, plus young star Kenny Robinson. The Mountaineers also added former Ohio State defensive back Josh Norwood, who appears to be a player that has turned some heads throughout August. Throw in talented freshman Kwantel Raines, and all of a sudden, the defensive line isn’t the only position of depth on the defense.
Corner will be a spot that becomes the biggest question when it comes to depth, but with the emergence of Hakeem Bailey, Derrek Pitts Jr. and Norwood, there’s no question the top of the chart is strong. Former Michigan corner Keith Washington is also in the mix and will probably become that fourth corner by the end of Week 1.
Lastly, there’s the linebackers in the middle. The obvious standout here is David Long, who remains an absolute freak. Last season, Long set a school record with 18 solo tackles in the game against Oklahoma State. He is the unquestioned leader on defense, and this year, he’ll have rising stud Dylan Tonkery next to him in the middle.
A name most do not know right now is Charlie Benton. Benton comes from Butler Community College, and it seems he has secured a starting spot at the SAM linebacker position.
The one glaring issue last year was how the defense continued to lose energy in the second half of games. Many of these games were low-scoring in the first half, but the defense seemed to collapse halfway through the third quarter.
Part of that blame for the late defensive problems should lie on the offense for not holding onto the ball long enough. An already-thin group of players had to spend a lot of time chasing Big 12 offenses around the field. West Virginia’s offense should retain that quick strike ability, but offensive coordinator Jake Spavital has said that he wants his unit to become more methodical this year. That should help the defense save its legs, among other things.
Yes, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about this defense, but the team looks to have an ideal mix of young talent and savvy veterans. With a ton of depth on the defensive front and on the back end with the safeties, this defense should be a top-five unit in the league for the third time in five years. If the offense is as good as everyone thinks it will be, that’s more than enough to get West Virginia to the Big 12 Championship game in Arlington.