West Virginia defensive coordinator Joe DeForest hopes his unit can continue improving when the Mountaineers visit Oklahoma State. (File photo)
Asked why a former logistics engineer at NASA eventually became a defensive coordinator at West Virginia, Joe DeForest told the gaggle of sportswriters, “So I can talk to you guys.”
His reply comprised a perfect concoction of humor and unabashed sarcasm — after all, no coach would want to face the weekly line of questioning that surrounds WVU’s 111th-ranked defense.
“Different challenges, different questions,” DeForest said, fusing the transition from his life on the launch pad to his job coaching guys in pads. “You can ask me who blew the coverage as opposed to me finding out what happened to the O-ring when the shuttle blew up.”
Not to equate a 26-year-old national tragedy to what has been merely a case of 20-year-old football players and their disastrous tackling, but there is a new-frontier angle to DeForest’s current situation. This being his first season as a college coordinator, after 22 years as a position coach, there are organizational nuances to be learned and management styles to be mastered.
For instance, DeForest is an ex-linebacker who always preferred to coach from the sideline, where he could read players’ expressions and communicate directly through the chaos. Yet last week, at the bequest of head coach Dana Holgorsen, DeForest shifted upstairs to the serenity of the coaches’ box, and West Virginia’s defense, coincidentally, turned in its most encouraging effort in five Big 12 games.
“There’s no emotion involved up there, no distractions,” said DeForest, whose unit forced seven three-and-outs, nine punts and two turnovers in a 39-38 double-overtime loss to TCU. He claimed it was easier to make defensive calls because he didn’t “get distracted by any of the emotion after a big play — good play or bad play — and let the situation dictate what we had planned to call.
“It was the first time in 23 years I was up in the box, and I wish I would have done it earlier, because it really helped me concentrate.”
Now DeForest needs his defenders to match that concentration, and the TCU performance may have signaled a turning point. After entering the game allowing 51 percent of third downs to be converted, WVU limited the Horned Frogs to 4-of-17.
“It was phenomenal,” DeForest said.
Deploying a broader array of blitz packages, West Virginia sacked Trevone Boykin four times and pummeled him more than 10 times on hurries and scrambles.
“We twisted our front and made it confusing on the offensive linemen … put them in a bind with our athleticism,” said Buck linebacker Josh Francis. “Switching up fronts, that helps.”
Will linebacker Shaq Petteway said the coaches challenged the defense again, something that’s become a weekly refrain all season as the points and yards piled up. This time it sunk in.
“We just looked ourselves in the mirror,” said Petteway, referencing a players-only meeting that touched upon “pride and attitude” during the bye week. “We were losing sight of what West Virginia defense was made of in the past, and we just want to get that back.”
While DeForest praised his defenders for better communication and faster pursuit, he cited a handful of errors that ultimately cost WVU the game.
“There were five plays in that game, where if we had made one of those five plays, it would have been a different outcome,” he said. “Whether it was a busted coverage or a missed assignment … games are won and lost by doing the little things right. I think our kids realize, ‘Wow, we played really good except for these five plays, and it cost us.’”
The most glaring gaffe was letting TCU’s top receiver Josh Boyce run free on a 94-yard game-tying touchdown pass with 1:28 left in regulation. Cornerback Ishmael Banks released Boyce initially, and first-time starter Cecil Level never brought safety help.
“That wasn’t Cecil,” DeForest said twice. “I thought he played well. He didn’t cost us any touchdowns.”
So what should have happened? Was Banks supposed to drop deeper into zone coverage or play Boyce in man?
“I don’t want to call a kid out and I hope you’ll respect that,” DeForest said. “If the kids looked at each other and communicated, then that would never have happened. We’d be sitting here happy.”
A NEW LEVEL
After forcing a fumble and making five tackles (double his previous season total), Level apparently will start at Oklahoma State on Saturday, retaining the boundary safety job he took from 20-game starter Darwin Cook during the bye week.
“Absolutely,” DeForest said. “Someone’s got to take it from him, and they’re going to have a hard time.”
A product of Fayette County High in Fayetteville, Ga., Level spent two seasons playing cornerback at Division II West Virginia Tech before his coaches advised him he was talented enough to make the WVU squad as a walk-on. He sat out 2010 under NCAA transfer rules and played primarily on special teams last season and the first seven games the fall.
He shifted to safety full-time during the Montaineers’ off week after coaches raved about his effort on coverage teams and scout teams.
“It was a difficult switch at the start,” he said, “because being at corner you have to open your hips up, and (at safety) you have to be slow and controlled and keep your hips in. Now it’s not that much of a difference, except I can see the whole field instead just one side.”
Level clearly cherished his first time taking the field as a Division I starter. Recounting the emotion of that first defensive series against TCU, his broke into a smile that seemed to stretch all the way back to Georgia.
“It was like, thank God I can have a chance to get out there, and that the coaches believed in me and saw something in me,” he said. “It just felt good to be out there, seeing family and friends. To make that first tackle, it was amazing.”
The situation with Cook remains murky. After he did not appear against TCU — ending a streak of playing in 33 straight games — coaches referenced an unspecified injury. But Holgorsen, while leaving the postgame podium, indicated Cook was “not playing very good.”
DeForest said Cook practiced some leading up to the TCU game and was asked how the junior responded to missing the game, whether it was a product of injury or benching.
“We’ll see,” he said. “Guys have got to want to play. If he couldn’t play because he was injured, that’s fine. We just have to do a good job of getting guys to fight through things.
I like Cookie. Cookie’s done a lot of good things here at West Virginia. Hadn’t played well lately, but we’ve got to get it out of him.”
Even in the upstairs coaches’ box, DeForest continued to wear his ball cap backward. That won’t change.
“That’s me saying hi to my mom,” he said, noting that he first turned around his cap in tribute while working as a graduate assistant at Rice in 1990. “I’ve been doing it 23 years. Just my way of letting her know I’m thinking of her.”
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