The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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August 24, 2011

WVU's defense a ‘work in progress’

MORGANTOWN — Last year, West Virginia’s defense almost single-handedly led the team to a 9-4 record and a share of the Big East title.

With seven seniors, the Mountaineers were second nationally in points allowed (12.8, regular season), and until a loss to North Carolina State (23-7) in the Champs Sports Bowl, only Marshall had scored 21 points on the defense.

Overall, West Virginia was third nationally, allowing 261.1 yards per game.

That was then, when players like defensive linemen Chris Neild and Scooter Berry, linebackers  J.T. Thomas and Anthony Leonard and defensive backs Robert Sands, Brandon Hogan and Sidney Glover were leading the charge.

This year, the Mountaineers’ defense is a big question mark.

“We’re a work in progress,” defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said.

“We replaced seven kids. We’ve got to push kids to consistently be a physical group that gives great effort. A lot of kids don’t have experience playing.”

Certainly the sting of losing those players — all of whom are currently on NFL training camp rosters — is eased by the return of guys like defensive end Bruce Irvin (No. 2 nationally in sacks with 14 despite playing mostly on passing downs), defensive tackle Julian Miller (21.5 career sacks), cornerback Keith Tandy (a Big East-leading six interceptions, almost all on tipped balls) and DB Terence Garvin.

Linebacker Najee Goode, a key backup last year, also returns with experience and is seen as a vocal leader on the Mountaineers’ defense.

“We have some kids who can make some plays,” Casteel said. “They just have to do it consistently and with fundamentals. If they do that, then they’re going to have success like the guys before them have. If we’re not a good fundamental team, if we’re not tackling and running to the ball, it doesn’t matter if you have a talented kid. Chances are, you’re not going to have much success.”

There is talent in youth; it’s just not known how well they will react when the games are live.

“What’s going to happen when we play and the stands are filled up?” Casteel said. “A lot of those kids haven’t been on the field when the stands were filled up. I think we’ll have a better judge of these guys the second, third week of the season.”

Linebackers like Casey Vance, Doug Rigg, Josh Francis and Juwone Snow have stood out in fall camp.

“Josh Francis (a transfer from Lackawanna Community College) has as much talent as anyone on our team,” coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We’re just trying to get him pointed in the right direction right now.”

Eain Smith, Pat Miller and Darwin Cook have impressed in the secondary.

Some young players could end up being redshirted, but Casteel noted that most are still competing for playing time.

“In a lot of spots, depth-wise, you can’t put a young kid on the shelf,” Casteel said. “We really don’t do any (redshirting) until the second, third game. Everybody is still competing. The special teams depth chart has not been set yet. We’re going to try to win games this year, not save a kid for next year. If a kid can help us on special teams, a kid can help us on offense or defense, they are going to get a chance to play.”

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