MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — While the departures of Shaq Rowell and Will Clarke left holes in West Virginia’s defensive line, spring is about renewal and replenishment, and defensive coaches hope new leaders are developing.
“We have to get where we can play six or seven defensive linemen. That’s our goal right now and we are starting to build and create depth,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said after Saturday’s scrimmage in Charleston.
The starting three-man front currently projects to be Kyle Rose and Dontrill Hyman at the tackle/end spots, with Christian Brown manning the nose. That group also has been the subject of some experimentation, with Brown lining up at tackle and end Saturday to allow second-teamer Darrien Howard more reps at nose.
Eric Kinsey and Noble Nwachukwu are the other linemen working with the No. 2 unit.
“Everyday we get a little better,” Rose said. “I think from here to (the March 22 practice in) Wheeling, we look 100 times better. We are flying around, not a lot of busted assignments.”
The quick acclimation to coaching whiz Tom Bradley has the defensive line undergoing changes.
“I’ve had the opportunity to watch and get to know my players a little bit more,” said Bradley, the longtime Penn State assistant who was hired Feb. 19, about a week before the start of WVU’s spring drills. “After 11 practices, obviously we have a lot of work to do, but we’re on schedule.”
Hyman, the only senior among the top six defensive linemen, has the highest ceiling but didn’t deliver on that potential last season, making only 18 tackles in 12 games. Brown suffered a weight room injury and missed the last eight weeks, which essentially led to Howard losing a redshirt year by playing in the last four games.
Kinsey (15 tackles in 10 games) and Nwachukwu (five stops in nine games) had bright moments, just not nearly enough of them.
The most productive returnee by far is the junior Rose, who matched Clarke with a unit-best 49 tackles. He’s hoping to make a bigger impact under Bradley’s tutelage.
“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime coach, after coaching that many guys in the NFL and having 30 or 40 years of coaching experience,” Rose said. “I hope I don’t offend him because I don’t know how old he is.
“He’s just a natural leader. He’s doesn’t get mad at you too much, but you can tell when he does get mad that he means business. He’s a great addition to us.”
There’s always the need for more sacks, especially for a defense that registered only 16 last season, tying it for 107th nationally out of 123 FBS teams. The only power-conference defenses that reached the quarterback less were Illinois (15), Iowa State (14) and Purdue (14).
While most of the pressure projects to come from edge-rushing linebackers like Brandon Golson and Edward Muldrow and back-end blitzers from the safety and nickel spots, Bradley wants his front-line guys generating a push too. Brown and Rose made sacks in Saturday’s scrimmage while working against the first-team offensive line.
“The first group, I thought did very well,” Bradley said. “The second group, there was some things that came up, and it always comes down to missed tackles and leverage on the ball.
“I think the next three days and how we finish spring … will be a very important week of practice for us.”
The Mountaineers conclude spring drills with the Gold-Blue game on Saturday at Mountaineer Field. The current group of linemen figures to be the complete mix come fall, with incoming freshmen Jaleel Fields and Tyree Owens projected to redshirt.
“We are in flashes—they’re up and down with it right now,” Gibson said. “Obviously we have a ton of work to do, but I like our progression and where we’re at.”