We continue our pre-season West Virginia football coverage with our Mountaineers’ 2020 linebacker preview.
Mountaineers’ 2020 Linebacker Preview
Injuries and Transfers in 2019
The tale of the West Virginia linebacker corps in 2019 begins and ends with injury and in-season attrition. At the beginning of the season, this looked to be a group with manageable depth. After all, the only significant 2018 contributor gone from the roster was David Long (though his impact certainly cannot be overstated). JoVanni Stewart, Shea Campbell, Dylan Tonkery, Zach Sandwisch, Josh Chandler, Exree Loe, Charlie Benton, and Quondarius Qualls all returned. All looked like potential contributors. Qualls and Benton, in particular, remained intriguing options as the prior staff talked both up frequently.
But injuries piled up at various points in the season. Only Loe and Campbell played in more than 10 games. Sophomore standout Chandler played in 10. For reasons unknown, neither Sandwisch nor Benton made a serious impact. Sandwisch tallied only 30 snaps in five games, while Benton did not register a single snap on defense. Qualls appeared in seven games. Stewart appeared in four before announcing his intention to redshirt and enter the transfer portal.
To make matters worse, gifted Alabama transfer Vandarius Cowan sat out the first four games of the season due to a lingering NCAA suspension. Then, Cowan played just 56 snaps over 2 games before suffering an injury. Thus, what could have been a strength of the defense turned out to be a literal work in progress as the season carried on. Players rotated positions, played out of their natural positions, and the staff recruited bodies from the safety pool to try and fill the gaps. All of this combined to make the 2019 body of work less than stellar.
2020 Linebackers Preview
Fortunately, West Virginia loses less than 40% of its experience and production from last season. Additionally, its presumptive starters at Will (Chandler) and Mike (Tonkery) return with multiple seasons of experience. Chandler has played in 20 games over 2 seasons. Tonkery has played in 26 over 3 seasons. Their immediate backups, Loe, Jake Abbott, and Benton, have experience as well, particularly Loe.
Cowan should finally see consistent action this season at Bandit, the Mountaineers’ hybrid defensive line/linebacker position. Cowan showed plenty of burst and disruption in his limited play before the injury in 2019. As a result, we anticipate he will put up a standout performance as an All-Conference contributor in 2020. Cowan will share time at Bandit with freshman Jared Bartlett. Bartlett picked up plenty of snaps in four-game last season while preserving his redshirt.
West Virginia also welcomes three newcomers to the fold, though their exact roles remain undefined. Lanell Carr joins the group from Missouri. He accumulated 15 Power 5 offers before signing with the program. Eddie Watkins was a late addition to the 2020 recruiting class, but he could be one of the more intriguing prospects in the class. Finally, Taurus Simmons, who could find himself either at Bandit or at one of the ends, rounds out the Mountaineers’ depth at linebacker.
Based on the solid play of Chandler, the veteran leadership of Tonkery, and the potential of Cowan, we anticipate the linebacker group to be significantly improved, barring another flurry of injuries. We also watch with interest as the Mountaineers develop the depth behind those starters, as they lose Tonkery to graduation after this season.