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An in-depth look at the WVU 2017 defense (long)

Earlier this week I previewed the 2017 WVU offense (that preview is linked again below in case somebody missed it and would like to read it), with a breakdown summary of each unit. Today I would like to do the same, except I’ll look at the defense. But first a look back at the 2016 version of the WVU defense.

The 2016 WVU defense finished 77th in total yards allowed per game (98th in passing, 66th in rushing), and 36th in points per game allowed. They allowed 2,187 rushing yards (168.2 ypg) and 3,350 passing yards (257.7 ypg), for a total of 5,537 yards (425.9 ypg). Opponents scored a total of 312 points, for a 24.0 ppg average. They allowed opponents to convert 83 of 206 third down plays (40%). The Mountaineers intercepted 14 passes, and recovered 11 of 20 forced fumbles, for a total of 25 total forced turnovers in 13 total games (1.9 forced turnovers per game).

In the offense-happy Big 12, WVU finished with the following in-conference rankings (stats are for all games, including conference and non-conference):
• Rushing Defense: 3rd (168.2 ypg)
• Passing Defense: 6th (257.7 ypg)
• Scoring Defense: 2nd (24.0 ppg)
• Total Defense: 3rd (425.9 ypg)
• Pass Defense Efficiency: 2nd (rating of 124.2)
• Total Sacks: 8th (23 for 1.77 spg)
• Red Zone Defense: Tie for 5th (allowed 42 scores on 50 attempts for an 84% average)

As you can see by the statistics above, WVU’s defense faired pretty well statistically when compared against the rest of the Big 12, but overall those numbers aren’t great. This could be a reflection of how good Big 12 offenses are, how bad Big 12 defenses are, or some combination of both.


WVU employs a 3-3-5 base defense, and is projected to return only 3 players who started at the close of 2016. Those 2016 departures include: all 3 defensive linemen; 1 linebacker; and 4 defensive backs. Of the nearly 900 total defensive tackles during 2016, WVU graduates 531 of those tackles (59%). As far as defenses in the Big 12 are concerned, the 2016 version of the Mountaineers defense was one of the better units (see stats above), and Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson was rewarded in December 2016 with a 3-year, $2.7 million contract. Let’s take a look at each potential unit breakdown for 2017.

DEFENSIVE LINE: WVU graduated all 3 defensive linemen following the 2016 season. Their depth chart lists the backups as two rising RS sophomores and a rising RS senior. Those are (playing time is for the 2016 season):
• • DE: Adam Shuler (1 start; 13 games played; 33 tackles; 2 TFL; 1 Sack)
• • NT: Jaleel Fields (DNP in 2016 due to injury)
• • DE: Jon Lewis (0 starts; 13 games played; 4 tackles; 0 TFL; 0 Sacks)

Adam Shuler bring the most experience to a defensive line that was gutted by graduation. Shuler, at 6-4, 275 pounds, looks to have a big year following his backup role in 2016 where he performed admirably. At nose tackle, WVU welcomes the return of 6-1, 301 pounds Jaleel Fields who was lost to a knee injury prior to the start of the 2016 season. His backup will likely be 6-2, 340 pounds Jalen Harvey, who is a transfer out of Northwest Mississippi Community College. At the other defensive end spot WVU may use Jon Lewis, who saw action in all 13 games last season. If Lewis does not get the call, look for Reese Donahue to start at the DE spot. Donahue played in 12 games last year as a true freshman, and made 12 tackles.

WVU also added JUCO lineman in Ezekiel Rose who could man either DE spot. ESPN ranks the WVU defensive line No. 8 in the Big 12 in their preseason unit rankings. Given that WVU replaces every started on the defensive line, it would be difficult to rank this unit any higher at the beginning of the season. They may prove better than that over time, but for now I would agree with the ESPN ranking.

LINEBACKERS: WVU loses 1 of 3 starting linebackers for the 2017 season, but that loss was their leading team tackler in SAM LB Justin Arndt (a former walk-on I believe). The projected depth chart looks like the following:
• • SAM: Xavier Preston (0 starts; 12 games played; 11 tackles; 1 TFL; 1 Sack)
• • MIKE: Al-Rasheed Benton (Returning starter; 80 tackles; 1 TFL; I INT)
• • WILL: David Long (Returning starter; 65 tackles; 4.5 TFL; 2 Sacks). WILL NOT PLAY vs. VT

David Long played very well for WVU as a true freshman linebacker in 2016 after being thrust into the starting lineup the fourth game of the season (a position he never relinquished). In my opinion, he will be an all-conference performer before his career is over. However, Long was injured in the preseason and is expected to miss about the first month of the season. His loss is a severe blow to the defense, as the speedy linebacker was poised for a big year. Long’s spring backup was Redshirt Freshman Dylan Tonkery, a converted safety. Other potential options to replace Long are JUCO transfer Quondarius Qualls, who reportedly had an inconsistent spring; or WVU may have another linebacker flip sides, such as Adam Hensley. I believe WVU will start Hensley at the WILL against VT, which would be the first start for the 6-2, 229-pound sophomore (he has 1 career tackle).

MIKE LB Al-Rasheed Benton was the second leading tackler on the team in 2016. The Redshirt Senior stands 6-0, and weighs 237 pounds. Benton is expected to be the leader of the linebacker unit. The other linebacker spot, SAM, will likely be manned by 6-2, 238-pound Xavier Preston, a senior from Florida. Preston played in 12 games during 2016 as a backup to leading tackler Justin Ardnt.

ESPN ranks the WVU linebacking unit as the 5th best in the Big 12 conference. With Long in the lineup that ranking seems about right or slightly too low. The linebackers will be the strength of the defense upon Long’s return. However, with Long out of the lineup against VT, I would look to expose his replacement who will have very limited, if any, P-5 experience. While Preston is a seasoned senior, the other two starters will be making their first P-5 start.
DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD: Gone are 4 of 5 defensive backs that started at the end of 2016, as well as several key backup performers. The only returning starter from the 2016 backfield is safety Kyzir White. WVU recorded 14 interceptions in 2016, but only 2 of those were from defenders who will return for 2017 (and one of those was from a linebacker). Based upon 2016 playing time, the defensive backfield could potentially be made up of any of the following (playing time is for the 2016 season):
• • Kyzir White (Returning starter; 58 tackles; 7 TFL; 3 Sacks; 5 PBU; 0 INT)
• • Dravon Askew-Henry (Started as true freshman; sat out 2016 with injury)
• • Toyous Avery (1 start; 11 games played; 24 tackles; 1 TFL; 4 PBU; 0 INT)
• • Elijah Battle (3 starts; 11 games played; 23 tackles; 0.5 TFL; 1 PBU; 0 INT)
• • Marvin Gross (1 start; 13 games played; 24 tackles; 3 TFL; 2 Sacks; 1 PBU; 1 INT)
• • Jovanni Stewart (0 starts; 12 games played; 2 tackles)
• • Jordan Adams (0 starts; 4 games played; 0 tackles)
• • Shane Commodore (0 starts; 13 games played; 9 tackles)
• • Mike Daniels (0 starts; 6 games played; 1 tackle)
• • Deamonte Lindsay (0 starts; 7 games played; 0 tackles)
• • Kevin Williams (0 starts; 4 games played; 0 tackles)
• Corey Winfield (Graduate transfer from Syracuse)

If Askew-Henry can come back fully from his injury, then he and Kyzir White will team to form one of the better safety units in the Big 12. Askew-Henry is an all-conference talent and has been added to several Watch Lists for 2017, but sat out all last year after starting as a true freshman in 2015. The corners are another story though, as there is little to no starting experience at WVU at the cornerback position to start 2017. Potential starters/key backups safety Marvin Gross (knee) and cornerback Corey Winfield (finger) recently had preseason surgery and will be out “a couple of weeks, but we’re expecting to get them back quick” said head coach Dana Holgorsen. Winfield is a graduate transfer from Syracuse, where he was the starting cornerback for the Orange.

ESPN rated the WVU defensive backfield as the No. 5 unit in the Big 12. If the secondary is intact and free of injury to start the season, I would concur with ESPN’s ranking. The safety tandem of White and Askew-Henry will be very good. While the other secondary positions lack experience, they are manned by more mature players in that many are JUCOs or transfers.

OVERALL THOUGHTS ON THE DEFENSE: ESPN ranks the WVU defensive side of the ball as the 6th best unit in the Big 12. No matter how you look at it, the 2017 version of the Mountaineer defense will not be as good as the 2016 version….at least initially. When a team loses 100 percent of their defensive line, 67 percent of their linebacking unit, and 80 percent of their defensive backfield there most likely will be some drop-off in production (although Askew-Henry does return as a safety and he is very good). The Hokies are catching this defense at a good time on the schedule. The linebackers (once Long returns) and safeties will likely be the best units on the field for the Mountaineers, while the defensive line and cornerbacks may be a liability at least early in the season. While I think there is some talent on the defensive side of the ball, the 6th best defense in the league may be generous at least early in the season. The unit could develop as the year progresses, depending on how well the inexperience matures and unit depth gels.

Link: WVU Offensive Preview

Posted: 08/11/2017 at 11:13AM


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Current Thread:
An in-depth look at the WVU 2017 defense (long) -- Nortazhokie 08/11/2017 11:13AM
  Agree with... -- Peaceful_Mountaineer 08/11/2017 12:38PM
  Re: Sleeping ? Or U just Blowing Smoke up their rear ! -- Peaceful_Mountaineer 08/11/2017 7:01PM
  WVU get about the same respect as VT -- Fxmooney 08/11/2017 8:31PM

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