MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – More than 10 minutes into a recent interview session, Shea Campbell finally got the question he was waiting for.
“I was trying to think ‘What are they going to ask me about today?’” the senior linebacker said of his pre-interview thought process. “’Oh, they’re going to ask about David.’”
Indeed, the question of how to replace David Long Jr. is unavoidable for West Virginia’s 2019 defense. The Big 12 defensive player of the year led the 2018 Mountaineers with 111 tackles. No teammate came within 34 stops of that total.
Campbell is well aware that he’s not going to be the guy who steps in to fill that void. Not by himself, at any rate.
“Replacing him is almost, you could say, impossible, because he brought so many different things to the table,” Campbell said. “He was a fantastic linebacker. He’s about to be drafted in the NFL. Replacing him will be hard.”
But Campbell thinks defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s new scheme will be able to mask Long’s absence better than what might have been the case in the 3-3-5. Koenning has described it as “marrying a 4-2-5 and a 3-4.”
“With what we have now, we’ll be able to do it in a different way with the players we have and what our new scheme is,” Campbell said.
Tony Gibson’s defense was designed for its best playmaker to make plays, and that’s precisely what Long did. Part of that started up front, where the defensive linemen tried to keep their offensive counterparts engaged while the guys behind them created most of the chaos.
“Last year was hold gaps and let guys like me and David make plays,” Campbell said.
As one of the beneficiaries of that system, Campbell enjoyed playing in it. Filling in for the injured Dylan Tonkery, he finished the year with 40 tackles, including a career-high 10 against Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl.
“You fit your gap; you do your job; somebody else will make a play,” Campbell said. “That was the beauty of that defense. You know if you do your job and everybody else does their job, there’s no possible way that you can’t have a big play — TFL, zero-yard gain. It’s awesome.”
Under Koenning, the defensive line is expected to penetrate the backfield and make more stops. Campbell is just fine with that adjustment.
“Now they have more freedom to play football,” Campbell said. “By all means, I want guys to make plays. If they succeed, we all succeed. Giving them a little more freedom is definitely beneficial.”
To Campbell, it’s the variety of looks created by Koenning’s defense that will allow the Mountaineers to compensate for Long’s absence. The challenge will be getting it all right by September.
“Right now it’s a matter of understanding how this defense is going to work with getting more push up front. I think it creates a different look,” Campbell said. “I was so used to seeing how the front would work with a 3-3-5. Now it’s seeing four guys on the line and finding out where I’ve got to fit is definitely changing. I don’t think it’s difficult. I’m just learning. I think it’s very interesting.”