MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Under an ideal scenario, Dylan Tonkery would still be playing outside linebacker. But ideal scenarios haven’t aligned with West Virginia’s defense lately.
So coordinator Tony Gibson moved Tonkery inside this spring, to Mike linebacker, to the middle of the defensive traffic, where the sophomore from Bridgeport is learning new assignments and, just as crucially, learning to be heard.
“The biggest hurdle with Dylan was getting him to talk,” Gibson said. “He’ll play, but he’s a man of few words.”
Becoming more assured has led Tonkery to become more vocal with communications to the Sam and Will linebackers who flank him, along with the three-man front. That has been the tell-tale sign of camp with Tonkery showing that he’s in charge of that defense with the same assertiveness Al-Rasheed Benton possessed the past two years.
“I put a lot on our Mike linebacker and he’s got to make our checks, make our calls and make sure we get lined up,” Gibson said. “But Dylan is so much better right now because he has so much confidence.”
A year ago this time, Gibson didn’t know what to expect when Tonkery was thrust into the starting spot at Will linebacker because of David Long’s offseason knee injury. But Tonkery held his own against Virginia Tech and was the four-game starter until Long returned.
“I watched him out there,” Long said. “He was making mistakes but he was making some plays too.”
Tonkery’s productivity was promising enough that when West Virginia suffered a late-season shortage at Sam linebacker, he flipped sides and started the final four games there. During an otherwise forgettable Heart of Dallas Bowl loss to Utah, Tonkery played with purpose by making eight tackles and 1.5 sacks.
He concluded the year with 44 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks and four hurries, and also earned the weekly special teams champion award against Baylor.
“Doesn’t matter where I play or Coach Gibby puts me,” Tonkery said this week. “I got used to Sam pretty quick and now I’m getting used to Mike.”
With Quandarius Qualls and Brendan Ferns lost for much of this season to knee injuries, the Mountaineers’ depleted linebacking unit need Tonkery to man the middle with consistency.
“He’s a tough kid, he’s powerful, he’s strong and he’s smart,” Gibson said. “If I had the luxury of keeping Tonk at Sam, that would’ve probably been the plan, but with injuries we had to do what was best for our football team.
“But I like what he has shown me. He’s working his tail off. He doesn’t shy away from any physicality at all.”
Noticeably thicker this preseason, Tonkery said he typically starts practice at 228 pounds — up from 220 last year. He senses the difference.
“Eight pounds doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s hard to get eight pounds — especially solid eight pounds,” he said. “I feel it, and when you’re coming downhill to hit linemen it helps.”