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Meet the Mountaineers: Linebacker Looks Bright, if Health Holds Up

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Meet the Mountaineers is a series previewing every position on West Virginia’s football team for 2020. Every day we will focus on a different position group and look at all the players we will see there in 2020. We began out final wee of this series by talking about the defensive ends yesterday. Tomorrow we will go over cornerbacks. 

Of all the injuries that plagued WVU’s defense in 2019, no one position group was hit as hard as linebacker was throughout the season.

In defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s 3-3-5 scheme, the Mountaineers use three linebackers in their base defense, two off-ball linebackers and one bandit linebacker for pass rush. When the injuries started to pile up last season, the team had to cross-train many of its linebackers, not allowing them to specialize in either role.

During the season, Koenning said he disliked having to teach guys how to play multiple spots.

“Moving some guys around isn’t the best scenario but I think they’re getting better every day,” Koenning said. “You would like those guys to start getting reps way back whenever we started this deal, but it is what it is so we’re just trying to get better each day.”

Even with the cross-training, linebacker was all but a revolving door of players for the Mountaineers. The bandit position was hit especially hard. 

Senior Quondarius Qualls opened the season as the team’s staring bandit linebacker. In the team’s first four games he had 13 tackles and was even set to get some backup heading into week five. Former Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan had to sit out the team’s first four games due to an eligibility issue but made his season debut in game five against Texas.

Cowan played well in that game, collecting four tackles with one sack. Qualls too played well against the longhorns, with six tackles and a sack of his own. With Cowan and Qualls, the bandit position was looking like it could be one of the Mountaineers’ most productive spots on defense.

Like so many other of the Mountaineers’ plans during the 2019 season, however, the dream of a super productive bandit spot was snuffed out quickly.

One week after his return, Cowan suffered a season-ending knee injury against Iowa State. The following week Qualls to fell victim to a knee injury that would end his season and just like that, the pantry was empty. Koenning and head coach Neal Brown then turned to middle linebacker Dylan Tonkery to transition to the bandit role. True freshman Jared Barlett was also pushing into action. Bartlett only played in four games to preserve his redshirt but unlike most freshmen, Bartlett was not playing to get some experience but more because he was the last man standing.

Tonkery was able to move to bandit, in part, because middle linebacker was mostly secure. Exree Loe played in all 12 of the team’s games, senior Shea Campbell had been health since missing the team’s opener and, despite a pair of missed games in the middle of the season, Josh Chandler-Semedo was turning into a tackling machine in the middle of the defense. Despite only playing in 10 games, Chandler-Semedo finished second on the defense with 71 total tackles and third with 40 solo tackles.

For 2020, Qualls and Campbell will be gone, but Chandler-Semedo, Loe and Tonkery will be back and Cowan was healthy enough that he was going to participate in Spring practices before they were canceled.

Key Departures:

Shea Campbell – Graduation

Zach Sandwisch – Graduation

Quondarius Qualls – Graduation

Returning Players (2019 Stats):

Jr. Josh Chandler-Semedo (71 tackles, 3.5 TFL)

R-Sr. Dylan Tonkery (36 tackles, 3 TFL, 1.5 sacks)

R-Jr. Exree Loe (40 tackles, 3.5 TFL)

R-Fr. Jared Bartlett (9 tackles)

R-Jr. Vandarius Cowan (6 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack)

R-Sr. Charlie Benton

R-Fr. Drew Joseph

R-Fr. Mike Powers

R-Jr. Jake Abbott

R-Sr. Luke Williams

R-Fr. Melvin Brown

Additions:

Fr. Taurus Simmons

Fr. Lanell Carr

Camp Battles:

Outside of Chandler-Semedo, who was one of the team’s best overall players last season, linebacker could be wide open playing time-wise heading into 2020. Tonkery played well last season even with the position change and Loe did well in his role but both now have better players pushing for time behind them. Had he not gotten injured, Cowan would have played a lot at bandit last season and he should push for an even bigger role on the team this season. Bartlett also showed enough versatility that he could be a factor at any linebacker spot.

Projected Starters:

Jr. Josh Chandler-Semedo

R-Jr. Exree Loe

R-Jr. Vandarius Cowan – Bandit

Much like at defensive end, who starts it not really important, what is most important will be who plays the most snaps. Expect Chandler-Semedo to constantly be on the field and to constantly be around the football. Loe played exceedingly well at times last year and should also have a very big role. Cowan’s upside, coupled with the fact that he has barely played since coming to WVU makes him a bit of a wildcard, but I believe in the performance he had against Texas last season. With the flexibility Tonkery put on display last season, I would also expect him to play a ton of snaps in 2020, wherever the team needs him.

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Cody spent the last two years getting his master's degree in journalism from WVU. He graduated from Slippery Rock University in 2018 with a degree in digital media production. He was born and raised in Mercer, Pennsylvania.

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