MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It might be a good idea to keep a game program next to your binoculars when you watch Bruce Tall’s West Virginia defensive line this fall.
That’s because there will be a lot of new names out there to learn.
Gone is dynamic defensive end Noble Nwachukwu and his 16 ½ career sacks. Gone is space-eating, 300-pound nose Darrien Howard and his ability to hold the point of attack in the middle. And gone is versatile 305-pound end Christian Brown, who turned heads at last Friday’s Pro Day by posting some impressive numbers in front of NFL scouts.
You’re talking about a combined 138 games worth of experience these guys had, which will be very difficult to replace.
These guys also possessed something else uncommon for West Virginia’s 3-3 stack defense going all the way back to its creation in the early 2000s - size.
Brown and Howard were 300-pounders, meaning they could comfortably match up with any center, guard or tackle they faced.
This year, the players Tall will likely have at his disposal to replace them won’t be quite as big their predecessors, but that’s not too concerning to him.
“I’m not a big guy in terms of trying to get guys big because the strength with this group is they move really well,” he explained. “I don’t want to take that away. I don’t want to take away what we’re good at by adding weight. If we’ve done that then we’ve missed the boat.”
Head coach Dana Holgorsen is not all that concerned either.
“That’s why this defense was developed,” he said. “We’re not getting a ton of D-line bodies and we never have. That’s why (defensive coordinator Tony Gibson) was a part of coming up with this style of a defense. It fits the Big 12. With much skill as there is in the Big 12 and as offensive oriented as it is you’ve got to be able to run and that’s why we’ve had success. I think the NFL likes it too because we’ve put a lot of those skilled, undersized guys in the NFL.”
Think back to 2002, 2003 and 2004, when former defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel was first getting the stack established at West Virginia. One of the key players he utilized during those first couple of years was 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound nose tackle Ben Lynch.
It was sometimes difficult to see Lynch whenever he stood sideways, yet he was even tougher to block because Casteel always had him moving. Gibson was on the defensive staff back then and he said there were things they were able to do to compensate for their lack of size up front.
“We’ve played this defense here since 2002 and, on paper, who have we ever been bigger than?” Gibson said. “I remember one year we beat Virginia Tech, I think it was ’03, and we had a 250-pound nose (Lynch) going against their All-American center and our 250-pound nose guard wore him out.
“We just have to find ways to free those guys up and use their strengths - whether it’s moving them, penetrating them or whatever it may be,” Gibson added.
Therefore, a defense built on constant movement and pressure could become even more active this fall out of necessity.
It’s pointless going through all of the players Tall is working with right now at the three defensive line spots because they’re changing from practice to practice, but he does have a handful of returning defensive ends with some game experience.
Those three guys are the most experienced of the returning players.
Others will emerge in time.
“It’s been a work in progress,” Tall admitted. “They’ve done a nice job and it’s been fun. It’s a good group. They’re real grounded, focused and working hard to improve daily. We’re breaking it down and showing them the things they need to work on, the mistakes they’ve made and they handle it and respond well to it.”
The guy with the most returning experience - Lewis, the son of former Mountaineer basketball standout Junius Lewis - said it’s not really a matter of replacing Brown, Howard and Nwachukwu, but rather an opportunity for some new guys to make a name for themselves in West Virginia’s defense.
“I think that’s a challenge that we’re still working on,” Lewis said. “We’re different guys but we work. I think that’s the thing that we hold on to. We work and we’re going to get the job done. If we keep that going and we keep our cohesiveness and keep it together, the sky is the limit.”
“You can’t compare group to group,” Tall added. “You take what you have and you work from there. We’ve got really good length in that room and we’ve got good quickness in that room so there’s things they can do that we feel really comfortable about using. It’s how they fit into our scheme and how we can best utilize them.”
Tall said his No. 1 objective is to develop one specific personal goal for each player and see them achieve it before the end of spring.
What he’s talking about is not becoming a starter or an All-American or anything like that, but instead a fundamental skill that they can try and master. Each guy was actually required to write something down that he could monitor throughout the spring.
“When they watch themselves and study themselves on tape they can truly evaluate it and see where they are,” Tall explained. “It puts more emphasis on one thing instead of a bunch of things.”
“When we’re coached, we’re coached to know everything,” Lewis noted.
Following today’s practice, workouts are also slated for Thursday and Saturday this week. Coach Dana Holgorsen met with the media before today’s practice and will also visit with the media before the start of Saturday’s practice.
Tickets still remain for West Virginia’s annual Gold-Blue Spring Game, taking place inside Milan Puskar Stadium on Saturday, April 15. Kickoff is 1 p.m. and admission is $10, with portions of the proceeds benefitting WVU Medicine Children’s.