By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It is Senior Day for West Virginia University today when Kansas comes to town, but if anyone is going to steal the show it is a true freshman linebacker who plays on the much-maligned defensive side of the ball, a true freshman named Karl Joseph who narrowly leads the Mountaineers in total tackles but who may lead the world in monster hits.
A surprise that a freshman, caught up in a defense that gives up a school record 40.6 points per game, should be able to emerge as a star?
Not to himself, not the coaches and not even in this corner, who wrote this in April after citing a play Joseph made that begins his high school highlight reel:
“There is more of this to come on the reel. Receivers are separated from their senses. Ball carriers knocked silly.
“He flies to the ball, and when he gets there he doesn’t miss.
“But that’s high school.”
Indeed, it is long jump from high school football to BCS college football, but as stated then, after seeing him in the spring:
“There was nothing bashful about him.
“He came to play.”
And play he did. A freshman?
“I knew I was going to be able to compete. I’m never scared of competition,” he said.
At the end of spring camp, WVU coach Dana Holgorsen knew he was a gem.
“Karl Joseph is probably the one guy out of all the new guys coming in that has got something to him,” Holgorsen answered when asked to name the top newcomer in camp. “You can pencil him in to play a good bit.”
A good bit turned out to be 98 percent of the plays, battering his body on Saturdays and shaking it off in time to return to practice on time to go through it all again.
The men who play around him marvel at what they see on the field and then in the film room on Sunday.
“He amazes me,” safety Darwin Cook noted a few days after Cook jarred the ball loose near the goal line against Iowa State and Joseph fell on it to preserve the victory that was slipping away and to end a five-game losing streak. “He plays with such a passion. He makes you feel like you love football, like you were young again.”
Cook noted that he “plays with a passion.”
Listen to what Joseph said there at the end of spring practice:
“Football is my passion. I love to play, and it drives me to get better. You’ve got to be driven by it.”
It’s one thing to talk about passionate play, another thing to be able to do it week in and week out, do it with such enthusiasm that it actually rubs off on others, makes them feel as though they were young again.
“He’s shown no fear. He has so much confidence. It doesn’t even faze him,” his defensive coordinator, Joe DeForest, said of him.
Oh, like everyone else, DeForest admits there was a time in midseason when he hit “the freshman wall,” a time when beating on others so much bigger and better and harder hitting than those you’ve faced wears on you.
The thing that differentiated Joseph from other freshmen was his reaction to it.
“He burst through it,” DeForest said. “During practices during the middle of the year, you could see him hit that wall. His body was getting worn down, but he fought through it.”
That’s not to say it didn’t affect him.
“When you hit someone so hard, it hurts your body, too. Don’t let anybody fool you. The opponent isn’t the only one who feels it. You do too,” DeForest said.
It isn’t that he hadn’t been warned about that very thing.
“I tell him he has to save his body,” Cook said.
But he’s a warrior, and he should be feasting today on Kansas’ run-heavy approach.
Asked what makes him tick, DeForest replied, “I wish I could bottle it. He’s being coached just like the other guys. Some guys have it. Some guys will have it, and some guys will never have it. He is reckless. He doesn’t have any fear for his body.”
The thing that makes him special on this day that honors the 22 seniors who are leaving is that Joseph will be back, probably for three more years of this, back to continue his growth into what could be an All-American.
“He is still missing some tackles, but you want him to be somewhat reckless,” Holgorsen said. “There have been one or two hits in each game that have been game-changing hits. By playing like that, he is going to miss a tackle or two. He has been our most consistent kid in terms of production and effort.
“With that said, he is still young and will continue to get better. He is what you are looking for defensively. He has produced at a very young age.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.