By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
A year ago, yes, West Virginia University’s football team was lacking a defense, which certainly was a fatal flaw, one as obvious as the 63 points Baylor scored and the 50 that Oklahoma put on the scoreboard.
But equally as fatal a flaw, though hidden from the prying eyes of the public, was the fact that as a 5-0 start unwound into a 7-6 season despite an offense filled with NFL-quality players, it became obvious that the Mountaineers were a team lacking in leadership.
Blame it on what you want, being too caught up in the pursuit of the NFL future, a lack of direction from a coaching staff that was having a difficult enough time figuring out how to patch its own flaws, but when things began slipping away, there was nothing to make it stop.
Early this season, in fact, coach Dana Holgorsen referred to last season’s lack of leadership when he said:
“(Leadership) was a big issue on last year’s team, and I mean issue in a bad way.”
He indicated that developing such leadership was one of this season’s most important goals, a goal that has been reached beyond even Holgorsen’s dreams.
The offense, of course, has had a difficult time developing its leadership, considering the quarterback shuffle that has gone on and the number of new players, be they freshmen or transfers, creating a situation where a new chemistry had to be developed.
But on the defense, driven to make last season nothing more than a terrible memory, great leadership grew rapidly out of a group of players who had gone through most of the bad times with roots that reached back into a better era.
“We’re getting tremendous senior leadership out of (defensive linemen) Will Clarke and Shaq Rowell, (safety) Darwin Cook and (linebacker) Doug Rigg. That makes a difference,” Holgorsen said.
How did this develop?
“It’s just something that’s happened,” said Rowell, the vocal nose tackle who has become a spokesman for the defense while making plays that give his teammates a standard to shoot for. “It’s not something I’ve been trying to do. I’m just being Shaq.
“I know that on this team right now, there’s no better leader than me. As far as mentality goes, I’m the oldest on the team. I’ve been through the most. I’m one of the last JUCO guys left that was recruited from my class,” he added.
Rowell wouldn’t discuss what he had been through, but at an earlier time in his career he talked about how difficult it was at junior college and what a difficult time he had with the death of his mother.
All of it made him grown as a person and a player..
I’ve been through a lot. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t want to talk about, but it’s life. Playing football is easy to me. This is nothing compared to life. If it doesn’t kill me, it makes me stronger,” he said.
“It’s just about who wants it the most. The guys know how hungry I am and how determined we are to win. I got those guys on defense to follow me, and that’s all we need.”
But what is a leader?
“There’s not a clear-cut definition,” said Clarke, a senior whose game and influence grew tremendously from last season to this. “The person who’s a leader leads by example, attempts to do everything right, and if they see someone doing something wrong isn’t afraid to tell that person to do the right thing in a tough situation.”
It isn’t, however, always a natural thing. Clarke learned a lot from the players he followed early in his career.
“Chris Neild and J.T. Thomas were big leaders for me when I was young on the defensive side,” he said.” They always preached positivity and preached for us to win. Brandon Hogan was like that.”
On the offensive side, Pat Eger, who has played all the line positions in his time at WVU, has his own definition of what makes a player a leader.
“Someone that does above and beyond what they need to do on and off the field and vocally leads younger kids to get them motivated and get them playing where they need to be,” he said.
And Eger, like Clarke, looked to players he admired as role models for the way he would be as a senior.
“When I first came here I knew who the leaders were. I came here with Selvish Capers and Donnie Barclay, Josh Jenkins … they were vocal guys and great leaders. Eric Jobe was here.
Sometimes you wait your turn a little bit, but at the end of the day, whether you are a freshman or a senior, if that role fits you have to step up and be a leader,’” he said.
There are different types of leaders. Some are the vocal, rah-rah type of guys, while others are almost shy, quiet types who simply go about their job the right way and embarrass you into doing things correctly.
“You don’t have to be vocal,” Eger said. “There’s people that lead by example. Charles Sims … he doesn’t say a word, but he’s a leader. He goes to work every day. The other guys see him busting his butt every day, finishing plays, and it motivates you to do the same thing.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.