MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Lanky and angular, Larry Jefferson was brought to West Virginia with one assignment in mind: Rushing the passer.
That’s a category at which the Mountaineers have been indubitably underwhelming each of the past two seasons, ranking next to last in the Big 12. (Tip of the cap to Iowa State.) Even in a conference where dropbacks outnumber handoffs and hurry-up offenses generate a high volume of plays, West Virginia settled for only 16 sacks in 2013 and 20 during 2014.
To put that two-year total into context, three Big 12 teams—Texas, TCU and Baylor—eclipsed 36 sacks last season alone.
So Jefferson arrives from the junior-college ranks just as the West Virginia defensive staff aims to rebuild a pass rush from scratch. The players responsible for 14.5 of those 20 sacks last season are gone, including graduate transfer Shaq Riddick, whose team-leading seven featured only one after Oct. 25.
At 6-foot-6 and only 242 pounds, Riddick was ineffective against power rushing attacks, when he was on the field at all. At 6-5 and 225, Jefferson’s disadvantage against the beefier tackles will be even more pronounced. With a nutrition and strength-building regimen underway, he should be heavier next fall, at least to the extent his frame can support more mass without sacrificing mobility.
For the duration of spring practice, defensive line coach Bruce Tall is concerned more with production than pounds.
“Mother Nature and (strength coach) Mike Joseph will take care of that,” Tall said. “The strength staff knows how to get guys like him where they need to be, but the weight’s got to be natural. We’re not trying to build guys in the wrong direction.”
Head coach Dana Holgorsen has restricted freshmen and transfers from speaking to the media, but Jefferson has looked plenty agile a an edge rusher during three viewing sessions. In last Saturday’s scrimmage, he made two sacks working against second-team tackle Marcell Lazard.
“Even if he goes wrong, he goes 100 miles-an-hour,” Tall said. “As he gets a better grasp of with the defense, he’ll get that much better. But you can’t replace his effort.
“He has put a lot of pressure on the quarterback and he makes people pretty anxious about protecting against him.”
A high school receiver in College Park, Ga., who ran the 200- and 400-meter events for the track team, Jefferson spent two seasons at Itawamba (Miss.) Community College learning to play as a down lineman. He exited as the nation’s No. 28-rated juco prospect according to Rivals, giving rise to the belief he can develop into a situational defensive end next season.
“He has a lot of work to do,” said West Virginia defensive assistant Damon Cogdell. “We’ve just got to keep pushing him to get better.”