MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Xavier Preston spent two seasons backing up an NFL linebacker, and then was surpassed in Year 3 by a former walk-on.
Now begins his senior season at West Virginia, where there’s a vivid understanding about playing time being a precious commodity.
“Nothing is given,” Preston said after a weekend practice.
At 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds, he stands out physically among the Mountaineers linebackers, and offensive teammates label him and Kyzir White as the team’s fiercest hitters. Yet Preston has never started a college game, something he hopes to change on Sept. 3 against Virginia Tech.
He appears to have a grasp on the outside Sam spot, though that nothing-is-given environment remains.
“He’s got to win the job,” said defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “Right now he’s doing everything he needs to do. He brings energy, he brings physicalness and he’s tough. He just has to be able to do it on a steady basis — and that’s been his issue.”
Preston got on the field as a true freshman against Alabama in 2014 and his future seemed promising. Two seasons playing behind current Chicago Bears linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski were understandable, but his presumed ascension in 2016 was derailed by a couple factors.
Preston got himself suspended for the opener against Missouri, and then got a season-long lesson in preparation from 5-foot-11 Justin Arndt, whose inspirational play led to a team-high 84 tackles.
For Preston, a more gifted athlete with 32 tackles in his career, Arndt’s senior year provided a blueprint.
“I love him and I learned a lot from him,” Preston said. “Everyday he made sure he was on time. Everyday he made sure he came prepared. He got extra work, he was in the film room, and he made sure his body was right.”
Whereas Arndt used a darting, wiggling style to frustrate much larger blockers, Preston provides a stouter point of attack. Still, he’s agile enough to drop into coverage and play in space, something his position demands.
After averaging about 12 defensive plays per game over the past two seasons — many in the nickel package — Preston sees himself developing into an every-down linebacker in 2017.
“I’ll get to show a little bit more what I can do,” he said. “But everyday you have to come out here to work.”
With David Long sidelined for at least a few games at Will linebacker, Preston’s production looms even more necessary on a defense that’s short on experience.
As Gibson said: “Now is your time, you’re a fourth-year senior and you’ve got to play. We’re counting on you, and this team’s counting on you.”