MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Jordan Lesley doesn’t mind seeing his defensive linemen eat chicken wings. At a dinner before the start of spring practice, he watched his linemen chow down on 350 of them.
But one thing Lesley doesn’t want to see linemen eating?
“I don’t want guys that are gonna eat up blocks,” said West Virginia’s new defensive line coach. “That’s the first thing I told them.”
Because of this philosophy, the defensive line may be the position group making the most fundamental change in Neal Brown’s first year at West Virginia. Before, their primary function was to engage the offensive line and allow linebackers like David Long to pile up tackles.
Lesley prefers his defensive line to go on the offensive. Troy finished 13th in the nation in tackles for loss in 2018 and third the previous season.
“Hopefully what we do schematically will allow a guy to have his name called a little more on Saturdays,” Lesley said. “I think they look at what we were able to do at Troy with high production in sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback pressures. Those guys see that. Now we’re giving them the same opportunity.”
When asked about the change, senior defensive lineman Reese Donahue offered a politically correct answer. At first.
“This isn’t a selfish game. There’s 11 on the field for a reason,” Donahue offered before breaking into a smile. “But it’s going to be pretty fun getting to pin the ears back and go.
“This is a position we really haven’t been in before. There were some situations, goal-line and some blitzes, where you get to pin your ears back. But your base defense is completely different.”
In order to pin their ears back, the linemen will first have to learn not to trip over themselves this spring. Donahue said the first three practices have been a challenge.
“We’ve done a whole lot of fundamental work because I find myself slipping into these habits that we used to do,” Donahue said. “Before, they would be good habits because it was a different style of defense. Now, they’re bad habits. It’s all about breaking that habit.”
In some ways, Donahue feels like he did as a freshman making the transition from high school speed to college.
“When the bullets start flying, you freak out a little bit,” Donahue said. “Coach Lesley just made the point that ultimately you have to come back to your basics. Forget scheme. If you get the basics right, you’ll be alright.”
For Donahue and the others, the changes begin before the play does. He explained how his presnap decision process has changed.
“Before, the game slowed down a lot for me. We did the basics over and over and it became routine,” Donahue said. “Now, I have to check the running back. If he’s here, I have to check the call. If he’s there, I have to flip to the other side. Is there a tight end on the other side? If there’s a tight end on our side, do I flip to the other gap?”
It may not be until August camp that things start clicking. But Donahue is eager to see what happens once it does.
“It’s hard for everybody to be pin their ears back and go because we’re still learning,” Donahue said. “I’m still thinking ‘Do I do this? Do I do that?’ But ultimately when we get to full pads on and we get to roll, man, I’m excited to see what happens.”
That excitement is ultimately the reason Lesley wants his linemen playing this way.
“Is it our job sometimes to eat up blocks? Sure it is,” Lesley said. “But there’s a lot of different ways fundamentally to transition for those guys to be able to make a play. It gives you a little more freedom from a defensive line standpoint. When you make some plays, you’re having fun.”