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March 25, 2012

New defensive scheme presents challenge, opportunity for WVU

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University’s defensive players want to make one thing very clear.

Even though they have basically a new defensive coaching staff and are putting in a new defensive scheme, this is not a transition year for the defense.

In fact, at least one of them, linebacker Doug Rigg, believes this is the year for West Virginia.

“Definitely not,” Rigg said when asked if this figured to be a transition year defensively. “This is the best chance we have to making it to the national championship. We have all the pieces on offense; we have great defense. We have size. We have a whole different mindset.

“This is not a transition year, not even close.”

Will Clarke, the defensive end who takes over the pass-rushing responsibilities Bruce Irvin had last year, agrees as he learns his new assignments in what has gone from a rarely seen 3-3-5 stack to a more tradition 4-3 and 3-4 alignment.

“The whole defense agrees; this is not a transition year. We don’t want this to be a transition year. We’re learning a new defense, but that’s not an excuse for us. We should have higher expectations of ourselves,” he said.

Travis Bell, a ball-hawking safety, put it this way.

“It’s not really different, it’s just different people at different positions,” he said.

But in reality, it is different, as different as Pitt is from West Virginia.

The Mountaineers, you see, are putting in the style of defense Pitt has been running and are doing it with co-coordinator Gary Patterson now on hand, after having been the Panthers’ defensive coordinator last year.

Cornerback Broderick Jenkins says he feels challenged by the defensive transiti ... eh, change.

“As far as the techniques, I feel like I’m a freshman, but some of the defensive schemes carry over from last year,” he said.

To him, it’s more a change in attitude than in scheme.

“Just our tempo and our attitude — we’re a younger defense as far as how we think and how we act. We have more high-flying energy as far as getting to the ball, and we are trying being more physical,” he said.

Coach Dana Holgorsen spent a lot of time thinking about the defense he wanted to play last year. It is one of the reasons the defensive coaching staff went off to Arizona to join Rich Rodriguez, minus Steve Dunlap. Holgorsen wanted his own people there coaching his own defense.

“You can only play 11 people. There are good schemes in everything,” he said the other day, following a discussion during Pro Day with Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who was on hand. “One of the things I was talking to coach Tomlin about was playing the 4-3 as opposed to the 3-4.

“There are 11 NFL teams running the 3-4. Which scheme is better? I don’t know; they’re both good schemes. The 3-3-5 is a good scheme. The guys here last year did a good job of coaching them up, but you’ve got to settle on something.”

And why did he settle on the 4-3?

“In my opinion, going against the spread, you’re probably giving a little bit of an advantage to being able to cover sideline to sideline. The 4-3, you watch the Giants play, and they look pretty good, too,” Holgorsen said. “There you have a bunch of defensive linemen that know how to rush the passer. We don’t have a tremendous amount of defensive linemen, so you play with what you’ve got and figure out other ways to getting pressure on the quarterback.”

Which could mean on run downs it will be 4-3, pass downs a 3-4, although in the Big 12 every down really is a passing down.

“Pitt led the nation in sacks last year. If they didn’t lead, they were up in the top two or three. I think that has something to do with the scheme and something with the way they were coached,” Holgorsen said.

Holgorsen has been more active in coaching on the defensive side this year. Last spring, of course, he was still just offensive coordinator, and even after he was head coach he wasn’t comfortable working with the holdover defensive staff and the holdover scheme.

“Last year he monitored the offense and made sure they were learning it. We had veteran coaches. This year, when everything is split up, he specifically comes over to the defensive side of the ball and makes sure everything is right,” Rigg said. “He doesn’t really know it, but you can tell if something is out of place.”

The defense is different for linebackers, more than defensive linemen.

“This defense is much different than last year. A lot of it is playing over blocks instead of just running into people. You see a lot of holes better if you play patient,” Rigg said. “The difference is you don’t have a lot of stress on your body. Last year, at the end of the season, I felt like I was a 45-year-old man. I was beat up by the end of the Orange Bowl. This year I don’t feel sore on the top. I’m not taking on as much blocking.”

Clarke says he hasn’t seen too much terribly different at his position, although he realizes it isn’t anywhere near all put in yet.

“Right now, it’s kind of the same thing ... inside blitzes and rushing upfield. I will be moving around some. They want to see how we play at different positions. They want to see how I play at tackle, and that’s different because it’s a 3 technique.”

What Clarke finds different is the approach as much as the scheme.

“From a team standpoint, a lot of the guys have more freedom. It’s more of a getting-vertical defense. The 3-3-5 was a gap-control defense,” Clarke said, meaning this is more of a rush-the-passer defense, while the 3-3-5 was more of a reading, free-the-linebackers-to-make-plays defense.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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