With surplus of experience, added strength, Cutter hopeful for continued growth

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Ben Cutter’s first college football snap came before a crowd of 110,000-plus at nationally-ranked Penn State to begin the 2023 season.

Yet it wasn’t until the following week, with West Virginia well on its way to a lopsided win over Duquesne, that Cutter had his welcoming moment to college football.

The true freshman linebacker found himself matched up against Dukes’ wideout Tedy Afful, who would bring in a 16-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone on a well-placed red zone throw from quarterback Darrius Perrantes late in the third quarter.

“He got one step on me and the receiver did a good job,” Cutter recalled. “It was a perfect ball, too, and he caught it in the back of the end zone, and I got scored on. I can guarantee that will not happen again. That’s a bad feeling.”

It was one of many lessons Cutter learned in his first season of college football, one in which the Denver, N.C., played extensively throughout and finished as the Mountaineers’ fourth-leading tackler with 56.

Cutter played in all 13 games and finished with at least one tackle in all but two contests — Penn State and Pitt — while his role grew throughout the year, including a career-high 10 stops in the regular season finale at Baylor.

“Going in raw as a freshman and playing that many snaps, you’re going to find out a lot about yourself and about your game,” Cutter said. “I’m glad it happened because I have a step forward on what I need to fix. I made a lot of mistakes, but obviously did a lot of good things, and the mistakes are the things I’ve tried to focus on during spring ball.”

Among those are improving in pass coverage, better awareness toward route combinations, baiting quarterbacks into throwing passes Cutter could then affect and taking better angles in pursuit of tackles.

“I missed some tackles last year because I’d take an angle, my hips would be turned out and the running backs hips are still square to me, and he cuts back and it doesn’t look good on film,” Cutter said. “Those are things you don’t really notice until you have a lot of game experience because you’ve made a mistake. When you make a mistake more than once, you realize it and definitely need to fix it. It definitely helped me having all those reps last year.”

Through a mix of lack of depth at linebacker last season and how highly it thought of Cutter, the former standout and state champion at East Lincoln High School played more than almost anyone could have imagined. 

In addition to his 56 tackles, Cutter had six tackles for loss and a pair of sacks.

Perhaps the toughest adjustment for Cutter was adjusting to defending the pass so much more often than what he was accustomed to in high school.

“In high school, we didn’t do really any pass coverages. If you saw the offensive lineman look like he’s pass-blocking, drop to a hash or something,” Cutter said. “It was huge understanding route concepts and what’s happening. 

“If you see two go out, expect the two from the other side of the field to come over. Little stuff like that helps you play fast and not have to look around so much. You see someone go out and might have to take a little peak at him, but you don’t have to. You can get back to the quarterback, play off and know what routes are coming behind you. You don’t have to be scrambled as much looking around you if you know what’s happening when you see one thing.”

Through that type of recognition, experience and a better understanding of West Virginia’s defense and college football as a whole, Cutter expects more from himself in what should be a more featured role as a sophomore.

The Mountaineers relied heavily on linebacker Lee Kpogba in 2022 and 2023 and Kpgoba finished as the team’s top tackler both years. He’s no longer around, though the thought within the program is that the unit has upped its depth in a big way.

Trey Lathan is back from a season-ending injury that cost him the final eight games of 2023, and Josiah Trotter, part of a strong 2023 recruiting class with Cutter, is expected to bolster the group after missing all of last season with an injury suffered in the preseason. WVU has also added Ohio State transfer Reid Carrico and returns Caden Biser at the position.

“You look at the guy beside you and he’s locked in for a meeting, and you’re like I better step up today, because this guy is going to have a better practice than me from what it looks like right now,” Cutter said. “You feel like someone is chasing you every day and you have to be able to perform your best. We push each other in that room.”

For the group to reach its potential, Cutter will be looked at to take the next step and up his production as one of the more experienced second-year players throughout the Big 12 Conference.

“I’m a lot stronger now, too. I understand better techniques of using my hands and when a 315-pound guy is running at you, you have to know what you’re doing,” says Cutter, who has bulked up and is now listed at 225 pounds. “You can’t place your hands wherever and expect to hold your gap leverage or being able to snap off of him. You have to be able to have good hand leverage. If you have a tight end coming at you, near foot. Little things like that help a lot and obviously the strength and weight helps you be more explosive.”

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