As Summer quickly wanes, the Mountaineers have been running full pad practices for close to a week. The media has had a few opportunities to interview coaches and certain players about the team’s progress. This has produced solid insight into the team’s early-camp performances. Based on what the team is saying, the following players will be the 5 biggest defensive surprises for the 2018 Mountaineers.
Predicting WVU’s 5 Biggest Defensive Surprises
Associate Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson usually sounds gruff and disappointed during his early camp interviews. This year, he has been far more calm and optimistic. When asked about his linebackers, however, Gibson shows hesitation. Unfortunately, this unit has suffered injuries to Brendan Ferns and Quondarius Qualls, neither of whom is expected to suit up until late season, if at all. David Long and Dylan Tonkery continue to impress.
The question remains: who will take over the third linebacker spot? Redshirt sophomore Charlie Benton appears to be the favorite at this point. Long has been emphatic in his praise for Benton. The staff measures that praise with reminders that Benton is still inexperienced. But the praise resonates, and fans should expect Benton to impact the second line of the defense beginning with the September 1 opener against Tennessee.
True freshman Dante Stills is not exactly a surprise name. West Virginia fans followed the recruitment of the 4-star in-state legacy prospect closely. However, over the past several months, the lion’s share of the press about the Mountaineers defense has focused on the depth of its line. Gibson says this is the deepest line he has had at West Virginia. Head Coach Dana Holgorsen agrees.
Stills’ older brother Darius has received a lot of the resulting attention. Darius Stills pressed so hard for playing time through Spring practice that true-freshman All-American Lamonte McDougle transferred to Washington State. Dante makes this list simply because such depth normally cuts against a true freshman seeing the field. But the coaches suggest that it will be nearly impossible to keep a player with Dante’s talent off the field for long. Expect to see the younger Stills make an ever-increasing impact as the season progresses.
According to the 247Sports composite rankings, USC transfer Kenny Bigelow was the ninth-best overall prospect in the 2013 recruiting class. Unfortunately for Bigelow, his career at USC was hampered by a series of injuries that limited his playing time. Bigelow looks to invigorate his career in Morgantown. So far, so good. Players and coaches both comment that Bigelow is one of the hardest workers in the gym and during practice. Gibson recently commented that Bigelow will be the linebackers’ best friend based on his strong engagement at the line.
Long and defensive end Reese Donahue suggest that the team’s transfers have added significantly to the defensive team chemisty. Donahue even said, “This is the closest I’ve ever felt with a team. Ever.” The overarching theme from the defensive spokesmen is this: the Mountaineers defense is playing with a big chip on its shoulder. According to cornerback Hakeem Bailey, “We want to prove everybody wrong. We want to have the best defense in the country[.]” With his work ethic and burning desire to fulfill his potential, Bigelow might just be playing with the biggest chip. Yet Bigelow is flying under the radar (for now). For a 305 pound defensive lineman who was once a top-10 recruit, that is no small task. Either way, fans should expect Bigelow to have a substantial favorable impact on the Mountaineers this season.
Derrek Pitts, Jr.
Sophomore Derrek Pitts, Jr., captured the praise of cornerbacks coach Doug Belk. Belk said Pitts runs well and is fast and physical. “I love the way he competes,” continues Belk. “I think he’s going to have a big year for us.” In a recent interview, Gibson identified Pitts as one of his top 11. Along with Dravon Askew-Henry, Toyous Avery, and Bailey, Gibson lists Pitts among his top athletes. “I really like those four right now.” Pitts has the potential to be a lock-down corner based on his athletic ability and skill set. Once he asserts himself into the role, Pitts will give Gibson enough comfort in the defensive backfield to dial up the consistent pressure that was missing too often last season.
Based on the Mountaineers’ depth at safety, writers did not expect much from former four-star recruit Joshua Norwood in his first year playing for WVU. Gibson, however, said that he will find ways to get his best 11 players on the field and suggested that he would play Norwood at linebacker if that is what it took. While Norwood likely won’t get playing time at linebacker (he weighs in at just under 175 pounds), the early praise from Gibson is promising.
Because Gibson and Belk both believe Norwood has the skillset to play safety and cornerback, fans should expect to see Norwood rotated into games early and often. Norwood’s tenacity will wreak havoc on opposing game plans. That said, Norwood remains an oft-overlooked potential contributor to the Mountaineers’ defense. This is why Norwood will be the biggest surprise impact defensive performer for the Mountaineers in 2018.