Fall camp will soon be under way. Fan day occurs soon, on August 3. With the beginning of the season just around the corner, we have started our 2019 season coverage in earnest. The athletic department and the staff have been managing expectations, but the Mountaineers are moving forward regardless. As we previously wrote, there are reasons for optimism. But a lot needs to happen for the Mountaineers to exceed preseason predictions. We gave you our Mountaineer wishlist on the offensive side of the ball. Now, we give you our Mountaineers’ defensive wishlist.
Over the last several years, the Mountaineers’ base defense featured the 3-3-5 stack. Former defensive coordinator, Tony Gibson, employed the defense to counteract the high-powered passing offenses in the Big XII. Unfortunately, he had limited success. Last season, in fact, the Mountaineers dropped all 11 players into coverage against Kansas and still surrendered a first down. They could not stop Oklahoma on a critical fourth-down conversion late in the game either.
A lot of this can be blamed on the lack of substantial pressure upfront. West Virginia’s defense produced only 27 sacks over the course of the season, good for sixth in the Big XII. The Mountaineers also finished eighth in opposing completion percentage, sixth in passing yards surrendered, and fifth in points surrendered per game. Less than ten of those sacks came from the Mountaineers’ front three. But among them, Dante Stills, who played less than 200 total snaps, brought the most pressure, tallying three sacks and six-and-a-half tackles for loss. Both numbers exceeded any other Mountaineer lineman.
This season, Vic Koenning replaces Gibson as defensive coordinator. He looks to install a four-man front, and Koenning will rely heavily on Stills to anchor that line. Given his outstanding production in limited time, Stills offers Koenning an aggressive body upfront that should change the dynamic of the defense substantially. There’s a reason we named the rising sophomore as an honorable mention in the Big XII’s best returning defensive linemen list. And for that same reason, he tops the Mountaineers’ defensive wishlist.
The linebacker position features perhaps the most substantial role changes in Koenning’s 4-2-5 defense. Technically, the defense features only two linebackers. The set employs a “bandit” on the edge, but the position is often played by an athletic hybrid linebacker who can rush the edges or drop back into coverage when needed. Koenning initially questioned the work ethic of four-star Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan during the spring, and Cowan appears to have received the message. After all, the Mountaineers list Cowan as their starting bandit linebacker to start the season.
Unfortunately, West Virginia lost its most prolific linebacker, junior David Long, to the NFL draft. And the Mountaineers also lost four-star Brendan Ferns, who has decided to end his football career after suffering back-to-back injuries and seeing limited snaps as a result. So the Mountaineers will need to rely heavily on the 6’4, 235-pound sophomore Cowan, who received an honorable mention on our best Big XII returning linebackers list, offers the unique combination of strength, size, and speed to fill the bandit role perfectly. As a result, he also factors heavily into the Mountaineers’ defensive wishlist.
Next, we focus on cornerback. The Mountaineers return their top three cornerbacks from last season, though Joshua Norwood is set to move over to safety to help offset losses in the safety room in the offseason. The starting positions are well set. Keith Washington was the lone Mountaineer defender to make our best returning Big XII cornerbacks. Hakeem Bailey will play opposite Washington. But the Mountaineers could definitely use a third cornerback to step up and take minutes from the others.
Dreshun Miller, who spurned LSU at the last minute to sign with the Mountaineers, offers that potential. Miller earned offers from LSU, Tennessee, Auburn, and Texas A&M as a top ten Junior College recruit. At Eastern Arizona, Miller earned high praise for his skills in coverage. Miller is not afraid of contact, a quality on which the new coaching staff places heavy emphasis. He flashed a skill set similar to that of former Junior College transfer Rasul Douglas, and, if Miller can develop in this defense quickly, the secondary might turn into a surprising bright spot for the Mountaineers’ defense in 2019.
No doubt that the Mountaineers lost a lot of production from the safety spot after seeing both Derrek Pitts and All Big-XII safety Kenny Robinson leave the team after the Spring Game. The moves prompted substantial negative fan reaction and caused us to remind fans that transfers happen. We reiterate that the sky is not falling in Morgantown as a result, even with the modest expectation for this team in 2019. It will be hard to cover for the losses of Pitts and Robinson, but the Mountaineers will likely feature JoVanni Stewart, Josh Norwood, and Jacob Long as its starters at safety to begin the season.
But this group may change over the course of the season. The Mountaineers added two four-star safeties, Tykee Smith and Osita Smith, in its 2019 recruiting class. Osita Smith has not yet enrolled, but he is expected to enroll in August once he passed through the NCAA clearinghouse. West Virginia also added four-star safety Kwantel Raines in its 2018 recruiting class. The 6’2, 212-pound safety was the top safety from Pennsylvania in 2018. Raines’ development into a key contributor in this defense would certainly help the Mountaineers adjust to its losses at the position.
Mountaineers’ Defensive Wishlist
If the Mountaineers can add production from each of these players this season, they could exceed the modest expectations set for them. Even if they do not, production from these players certainly would help West Virginia establish a strong foundation for the future. This completes our Mountaineers’ defensive wishlist.
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