MORGANTOWN — After shedding all three starters from final season, together with first-team all-conference choice Dante Stills, the expectations for West Virginia’s line of defense heading into 2023 weren’t very excessive. At the very least, outdoors of this system.
Stills went to the NFL, chosen within the sixth spherical by the Arizona Cardinals, oft-injured Taijh Alston went to play for Deion Sanders at Colorado and Jordan Jefferson selected to make use of his ultimate season of eligibility at LSU. That left junior Sean Martin because the Mountaineers’ solely defensive lineman with beginning expertise.
As an alternative of utilizing the switch portal to overtake the place, like has turn out to be widespread follow throughout the nation, head coach Neal Brown and defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley trusted the gamers they needed to step into larger roles and as a substitute used the portal so as to add complimentary items they thought would match nicely into their defensive scheme.
The end result has been a line of defense that’s by far the Mountaineers’ greatest unit on protection and should very nicely find yourself being probably the greatest within the Massive 12.
“I felt just like the line of defense performed nicely by way of fall camp,” Brown mentioned. “We went by way of fall camp and we knew we have been fairly good on the offensive line. A yr in the past, it was actually one-sided, our offensive line received nearly each day. On this fall camp, it wasn’t like that. Not that this offensive line didn’t nonetheless win a majority of the time, nevertheless it wasn’t one-sided in any respect.”
Martin has remained a starter, changing into the group’s not-so-vocal chief, and he has been joined within the beginning lineup by Mike Lockhart and Eddie Vesterinen, each backups final season.
By three video games, WVU ranked fourth within the Massive 12 in each speeding yards allowed per sport (93.0) and yards allowed per carry (2.8).
“It’s how they play I’m far more pleased with than the statistics,” Lesley mentioned. “They’re taking part in laborious, they’re taking part in with a number of vitality they usually’re taking part in collectively.”
Martin and Vesterinen have been greater than stable on the ends whereas Lockhart has been a stud within the center, registering a team-high three tackles for loss.
The actual story up entrance, nonetheless, has been WVU’s rotational items. They’re all gamers who had little or no expertise earlier than this yr and at the moment are producing the Mountaineers with premium snaps up entrance.
Fatorma Mulbah noticed only a few snaps in three seasons at Penn State earlier than transferring this offseason and is now second on the staff with two tackles for loss. Tomiwa Durojaiye performed even much less in his first season at Kentucky and now leads the Mountaineers with 2.5 sacks. Davoan Hawkins performed at FCS Tennessee State the final three seasons and has a sort out for loss and a move deflection this yr.
“I believe we’ve performed a really good job of evaluating precisely what we want and making the scheme match these guys,” Lesley mentioned. “Once you exit and create (evaluations) primarily based on want and match, you could find some actually, actually good gamers that create a high quality room and high quality depth and I believe that’s what you’re seeing.”
Evaluating gamers is troublesome, particularly once you’re guys at different colleges who barely noticed the sphere.
“You simply belief your analysis,” Lesley mentioned. “There are specific issues, athletically, that you just search for…You see issues that you realize can carry over athletically into the sport of soccer. No one is ever going to be 100%, however in case you belief it, imagine in what you see and keep it up, you’re going to be proper greater than you’re mistaken.”
Different in-house guys Asani Redwood, Hammond Russell and Jalen Thornton performed lower than 100 mixed snaps final yr and but have turn out to be key rotation items in 2023. Lesley mentioned that’s a credit score to line of defense coach Andrew Jackson, who’s in his third yr at WVU.
“AJ’s essentially most likely the perfect I’ve ever been round,” Lesley mentioned. “You get right into a tenure someplace and it takes time to get your guys and your perspective and your method to take over. It takes time to do this and I believe that’s what you’re seeing.”
Constructing a room stuffed with backups and depth gamers actually doesn’t construct a number of preseason hype, however the one factor that issues is how they play on Saturdays. And to date, that group of earlier unknowns has been precisely what WVU’s protection has wanted.
“It all the time begins there,” Lesley mentioned. “I believe you’re solely pretty much as good as you might be upfront.”
Their take a look at this week shall be a Texas Tech staff that options the Massive 12’s fifth-leading rusher in Tahj Brooks (3:30 p.m./ESPN+). The senior has 268 speeding yards and is averaging 7.2 yards per carry. He ran for 107 yards and two touchdowns in a 48-7 win over WVU final season.