MEMPHIS, Tenn. — At the close of his redshirt freshman season, safety Wes Tonkery was a wide-eyed first-time starter at the Orange Bowl, helping West Virginia crack Clemson 70-33.
“That game happened so fast, it felt more like I was just playing just by instinct,” he said this week.
And until this week, that night in Miami was Tonkery’s only postseason memory of note. He participated in a few special-teams plays during the 2012 Pinstripe Bowl loss, and the Mountaineers failed to reach a bowl last season after winning four games.
So the Liberty Bowl gives Tonkery a chance to cap a surprisingly effective senior season in which he climbed from depth-chart fodder to 11-game starter at outside linebacker.
“It was my senior season, so I had nothing to lose,” he said. “I put it all in during camp and it paid off.”
After winning a starting job in the preseason, the Bridgeport High graduate continued his surge by making 62 tackles, third-most on the squad. He made eight stops behind the line, added his second career interception and broke up four passes.
“He didn’t start out with the ones in camp but he worked himself into a one and arguably worked himself into being as good as anyone in the Big 12,” said West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “I’m really going to miss Tonkery. He gave everything to this program.”
And Tonkery understands what Gibson gave him—an opportunity to prove that two injury-riddled seasons wouldn’t become the end of his playing career.
“At the beginning of camp, I wasn’t sure if I was going to play or not,” Tonkery admitted. “But Coach Gibby gave me the chance that I needed.”
Following hand and shoulder surgeries, Tonkery wondered if he could stand up to another punishing season.
“There was some doubt initially as to whether my shoulder would hold up starting off,” he said. “But once I got through that first week of hitting and found there was no problems, it really left me play with no hesitation.”
He missed only one game, courtesy of an ankle sprain that sidelined him for the 40-37 win at Maryland. Otherwise, Tonkery was a steady, productive member of a Mountaineers defense that ended a two-year stint of ignominy.
“The past two seasons were letdowns,” he said. “But I think this year we’ve exceeded some people’s expectations and maybe exceeded some of our own expectations. We worked really hard to get back to the way Mountaineer defense is supposed to be played, and I think we’ve done that.
“It was important to know that I contributed, I played, and I did what I could to help the team win.”
Galloway subs for Dawson: Saturday’s news conferences were reserved for Texas A&M’s defensive coordinator and WVU’s offensive coordinator, neither of whom appeared. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin fired Mark Snyder on Dec. 28, leading to an interim stint for linebacker coach Mark Hagen. With West Virginia’s Shannon Dawson leaving for Kentucky after the bowl game, Holgorsen picked receivers coach Lonnie Galloway to stand in.
Galloway said Saturday’s soggy workout was treated like a Thursday practice, considering the Liberty Bowl will be play Monday afternoon.
“The players know on Thursdays that there’s a certain amount of plays that we do,” he said. “They were ready to get out of the rain, so they were bouncing around.”
Aggies defense in flux: Hagen said Texas A&M wouldn’t immediately try to overhaul its defense, which ranked 102nd nationally.
“It’s not like spring practice where you have a month to put in a new defense,” he said.
A Texas A&M beat writer asked cornerback Deshazor Everett if the break between two regular-season losses and the Liberty Bowl provided a chance to hit the reset button?
“You can’t hit a reset button until you have a win,” Everett said. “That’s what we want to end this with, a win. That’ll be our reset button.”