MORGANTOWN — When you finish 6-7, as West Virginia did last season, there obviously are a number of areas that need improvement and during the off-season Coach Neal Brown and his staff zeroed in on improving them despite the fact that they were operating in what is the grey area of the transfer portal.
They went out and got the quarterback they wanted, they added defensive secondary players who could cover man-to-man, and they brought in a new offensive coordinator with a resume that includes the big play potential they had been lacking over the past three years.
Additionally, they added speed and length on the defensive side of the football.
While that does not create the aura that comes with a one-time five-star recruit at quarterback in transfer JT Daniels or the anticipation offensive coordinator Graham Harrell brings with him, the speed on the defensive side of the ball was probably the hardest area in which to do a quick change.
You can’t just go out and get track stars, especially at a school that somehow fails to understand that a men’s track team could offer the opportunity to bring in game breaking sprinters who also play football.
The additions, along with an emphasis on speed in the off-season weight and conditioning program, make it a different defense they will put on the field.
It works in so many ways, from the defensive line to the linebackers to the safeties and corners.
“We’re fast,” All-American defensive tackle Dante Stills said as camp has been evolving. “We are very active and run to the ball.”
“This is the fastest defense I’ve been with,” linebacker Lance Dixon, a fifth-year Penn State transfer who played here last year said.
This is crucial, because to use the speed, it requires an all-out commitment on the part of the players.
“If one guy doesn’t run to the ball, it’s like nobody did. We all have to be involved,” Stills said.
Take the linebacking position. A year ago, Josh Chandler-Semedo was the Mountaineers’ leading tackler, a mountain of a man in the middle of the defense. He hit hard, he stopped the run but he wasn’t particularly fast.
This year it will Lee Kpogba in that spot, a junior college import who had a couple of years at Syracuse on special teams. He has a non-stop motor that rubs off on others and goes at top speed.
What he can do there helps narrow the field, promising to stop some running backs from breaking loose over tackle and heading out wide for big gains.
“Lee Kpogba at Mike Linebacker [middle linebacker], “I think he has a bright future. He runs. We needed speed at that spot and he did some nice things here on day one”, Brown said at the start of the spring and nothing has happened to change his opinion.
He is there in the middle while returnees Dixon and Exree Loe, who was out for summer camp with an injury but is back practicing at full tilt now and had an impressive scrimmage last Thursday, make it a quick Will linebacking group awaiting Pitt in the opener.
“Both Lance and Exree run extremely well,” Brown has said. “In a foot race, those guys are probably in the Top 12 to 15 guys we have running.”
Dixon acknowledged that he enjoyed using his speed.
“I’m fast, so I like to run,” he said. “You get more opportunity to run outside the box. I like to showcase my speed more than anything else.”
Defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley previously said he wasn’t paying attention to 40-yard times because they don’t matter.
“How often do you run 40 yards?” he said.
Obviously, if you have to run 40 yards to get a breakaway ball carrier, there’s been some kind of defensive breakdown anyway if that’s the case.
Lesley judges speed in a different manner.
“I just look at closing speed,” he said. “The faster you can close, no matter what your 40 times is, the more you can make up for.”
That closing speed comes as much from “want to” as it does from flat out straight forward speed.
The thing about speed on defense is it is multi-faceted. You can get to the ball carrier, you can cover a receiver and, perhaps, most important, you can wipe a mistake. Lesley has one on record saying that there isn’t a defensive play where some mistake isn’t made.
“You’ve heard me talk about erasers,” Lesley said last March. “With a combination of length and speed you can erase mistakes.”
Improved speed on the backline of the defense, Brown and Lesley both believe, will allow WVU to play more man-to-man defense rather than the zone that was dominant in the past. That can add to a number areas of improvement, not only in coverage and the opportunity for turnovers in the passing game, but in allowing more gambling on blitzes that can harry and hurry a quarterback.
“We wanted to get faster, more athletic in the back end, so we could play ore coverage and rush six or maybe seven sometimes,” Brown said.
All of a sudden you are pulling down tipped passes or diving atop fumbles before an opponent can get there.
Last year WVU was tied for 94th in the nation in turnovers taken with just 14 in 13 games. Opening opponent Pitt last year had 23 to rank 19th.
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