By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Two things not necessarily connected with linebackers have been emphasized by West Virginia’s sort of new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson in an effort to improve upon last season’s dreadful performance.
The two are patience and reading — and we’re not talking about patience when the service is slow at your local eatery or reading such classics as “A Tale of Two Cities,” even if those two cities were Norman, Okla., and Austin, Texas.
“Coach emphasized being patient,” Isaiah Bruce, last year’s second-leading tackler, said at a recent interview session to welcome in the summer workouts. “We tend to react too fast and it puts us out of position. Coach emphasizes being patient and getting more depth so we can see things before we react.”
This would seem to contradict everything you know about football, especially in the Big 12, where speed rules. Being patient doesn’t, however, necessarily mean being slow.
“It’s not like you try to play slow. Coach says, ‘Do you want to be patient and right as opposed to fast and wrong?’” Bruce said. “I can get anywhere really fast, but if you are not in position to make the play it’s just a waste of a person. If you key correctly and everyone else does the same thing, we should be able to stop any play the offense throws at us.”
“The way we work as backers is we let our front work for us. We stay patient,” said middle linebacker Jared Barber.
The problem is it is an unnatural reaction on the football field.
“For me, it used to be pretty hard to try and react slower. Once I think I see it, I’m gone. Sometimes I make some false steps and that puts me out of position. But I’m definitely getting good at it now,” Bruce said.
“You have some people who are really good at it like Doug Rigg. When the ball is snapped, he doesn’t move until he sees everything.”
The trick is preparation. Your good defense spends its time watching the offense it is about to face early in the week looking for keys and giveaways from the players they will face, while Patterson spends his time looking for trends and tipoffs in formations.
Both of these things were specialties with former defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, who left before last season to join Rich Rodriguez, his former boss, in Arizona.
So good was he that he may have been as crucial as Geno Smith and Tavon Austin in beating Clemson, 70-33, in the 2012 Orange Bowl.
“Sometimes you know 100 percent. Clemson, we knew before the ball was snapped what they were going to do,” Barber revealed.
The Mountaineer coaches had spotted some giveaways, and while Clemson did score 33 points, they pretty much shut down after building an early lead.
So what is it that a linebacker looks for as keys?
“My high school coach did a great job of teaching us to read the offensive linemen, when they are heavy, when they are sitting back and watching the splits between the two guards and the center,” Barber said.
Heavy? Sitting back? Splits?
“These things give me a good pre-snap read. You can see if the guard is lined up where he is trying to cut off the backer. It depends on their hands, depends on their feet,” Barber explained.
A lineman is “heavy” if he is putting more weight on his hand on the ground, meaning he’s moving forward, signifying a running play. If he is sitting back, he can either be tipping off, pulling or pass blocking, but he won’t be moving forward at the linebacker.
“Once we get into the season I’ll look at it more, obviously. Sunday and Monday I’ll go in and pick out one specific guy. There’s always one guy who is going to give something away,” Barber said.
All he has to do is find him.
Then, too, those splits between the guard and center often tip off if it’s going to be a split zone play and to which side.
“You get the formations first. You watch enough film that you know what they run out of that formation,” Barber said. “Then you look at things, they run power to this side on this formation, so you look at this guy’s hand. Is he light and going to pull? Is he heavy on it?”
And if they fool you?
“You go with your instincts,” Barber said.
“The hard thing about defense is that you have to react to what the offense is doing while the offense knows what it is going to do,” Bruce added.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.