The Times West Virginian

April 20, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU defense goes back to the basics

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — A year ago Jeff Casteel’s would get up in the morning and head to work feeling much as Arturo Toscanini, perhaps the world’s most famous maestro, must have felt in his glory days, knowing that when he put that whistle around his neck and flipped his cap on backwards he would be creating wonderful music out of his West Virginia defense.

A nod here, a hand gesture there and Brandon Hogan was knocking down a pass or Robert Sands knocking down a ball carrier. If that was string section, Chris Nield had the tuba and was going oompa, oompa on a center’s head while J.T. Thomas and Bruce Irvin beat the drums and reached the highest moment with a clash of the cymbals.

Every day was a new symphony with that defense — inventive, exhilarating, exiting music.

That changed, however, late last December when the music died on a dismal day in Orlando, Fla.

Casteel put away the golden baton, set his tuxedo into the back of a musty moth-ball protected closet and dragged out the shorts and sweatshirt, trading in the symphony orchestra in return for a grade school band of beginners whom he had to teach from the start.

“No, no, Johnny,” he seemed to be saying. “You blow into the other end of that trumpet. And Michael, there are no arrows that come with that bow.”

It is back to basics for the West Virginia defense.

“We’re back to Square 1 with a lot of these kids, but it is what it is,” he said a day after viewing the film of his first full scrimmage.

There was progress from the day the reported, but still there were a whole lot of sour notes, the rhythm is off a beat and some of them are still blowing in the wrong end of the trumpet.

It turns Casteel from being a maestro into being a music instructor.

“There’s a lot of teaching and what gets frustrating is when you have to go back and teach the same thing. You want to move forward and sometimes you can’t do that,” he admitted.

Whereas a year ago he could be creating inventive arrangements, he is now just teaching them the three-point stance and the techniques of the position, rather than putting together a defense.

With seven starters gone, it is a young defense and, in many areas, a mystery defense.

“We have a long way to go. We’re still looking for guys to step up and fill the spots we have. Everything is pretty much wide open right now,” Casteel said.

But Casteel is sure it will come. It’s just that the situation isn’t ideal, considering the offense they are working against is not what they figure to see in the regular season and that while their No. 1 goal is to stop the run all they are seeing in practice is passing.

“They’re understanding it, but they’re seeing so much throw, throw, throw that it’s kind of hard. It’s really third down defense and we’re not working our third-down group - we’re trying to install our base stuff. Sometimes the kids get into mismatches and it makes it tough to form. We’ve been pleased with their effort, their attitudes are good and they’re doing good things.”

Some of the good things aren’t in the areas of fundamentals and techniques. They are in the advanced area known as teamwork.

While a defense, like a symphony, is put together on player or one musician at a time, you must be on the same page of sheet music if it is to work, the violins and the oboes coming together with the drums and the trombones to turn notes into music.

“It’s encouraging to see some guys start to develop some chemistry, even though we’re mixing and matching,” is the way Casteel put it.

By mixing and matching he means that he is looking at a number of things and that there is really no first team, no second team and no third team.

“Because we’re just evaluating kids, we probably won’t settle in until (summer) camp,” Casteel said. “Because there’s so many kids to replace, we’re not really concerned who is first team or second team or third team right now. We’re just trying to get guys reps right now.”

In truth, Casteel is so busy working with his three linebacker positions that the coordinator responsibilities go somewhat onto a back burner.

“I won’t evaluate until after spring practice,” Casteel said.  “I’ve got my hands full now coaching my three linebacker positions.”

Email Bob Hertzel at