MORGANTOWN — Late last month during a Q & A session with the media, junior linebacker David Long Jr. was reminded of West Virginia’s “yes buts” for 2018 — “yes buts” being the numerous questions surrounding this year’s football team.
Of course, nearly all of those “yes buts” revolve around a Mountaineer defense that gave up 31.5 points per game in 2017, and seemingly doesn’t possess the name recognition their offensive counterparts have.
Some of the major questions concerning this year’s defense include:
Can it stop the power running game?
Can it cover tight ends working the middle of the field?
Does it have enough depth to get through possibly the most difficult November schedule since the Mountaineers joined the Big 12?
Who are going to become this year’s leaders?
Can enough Big 12-quality corners be developed?
Long Jr. has read the magazines and listened to the pundits and he’s not sure all aspects of Tony Gibson’s 2018 unit have been accurately represented.
“I’m looking forward to going out there and proving a lot of people wrong,” he said recently. “A lot of people don’t know what we have on this side of the ball. Offense is getting a lot of hype, and that’s cool.
“I’m glad they are because they have a lot of weapons over there, but we like to just stay under the radar,” he added. “We know what we’ve got and we know what we can go out there and do.”
What West Virginia’s defense has is potentially the fastest back eight in years, perhaps ever. When was the last time the Mountaineers had three linebackers capable of running sub-4.6s?
When was the last time they had all eight guys behind the line of scrimmage who can run that fast or faster?
WVU has had some terrific defenses in the past. Steve Dunlap’s 1996 unit that finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense is one that immediately comes to mind.
Those guys were all smart and tough and experienced, but not overly fast.
Corner Mike Logan could run and freakish pass rushing specialist Gary Stills might have been the fastest defensive player on the field for WVU that year, but the rest of those guys possessed average or below average speed for their positions.
Jeff Casteel’s 2007 defense was very similar - tough and intelligent with guys possessing more moxie than athleticism and straight-line speed.
So in that respect, this year’s defense is ahead of those two great ones in that aspect of play. But winning foot races doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to stop the other guys, it just means you can cover up some of your mistakes a little bit quicker.
“A blown gap, we’ve got enough speed to make up for it to look like there wasn’t a mess-up there,” Long Jr. admitted. “Hopefully, we don’t have too many big mistakes because that’s kind of what hurt us last year.”
Long Jr. was clearly West Virginia’s best defensive playmaker last year, in part, because of his willingness to gamble and take risks. In order for him to do some of the freelancing he did last year, Mike linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton had to make sure Long Jr.’s normal responsibilities were covered.
That role now falls on the shoulders of sophomore inside linebacker Dylan Tonkery, who has yet to play side-by-side with Long Jr. in a scrimmage setting because Long Jr. sat out spring drills while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
Long Jr. said his recovery process is right on schedule and he’s anxious to get out there and begin playing alongside Tonkery, a 6-foot, 220-plus pounder who came to WVU as a safety before moving to outside linebacker last year.
Tonkery is now adding more weight to take on the burden of playing the middle spot in Gibson’s odd-stack defense.
“I don’t know how much I can gamble right now because I haven’t played with Tonk at Mike yet, but I’m not worried about it because Tonk’s a great player,” Long Jr. said. “I’m pretty sure it’s going to be much of the same.”
The other linebacker spot might be occupied by junior college transfer Charlie Benton, one of the standouts last spring taking over for another spring standout, Quondarius Qualls, who went down with a knee injury.
Qualls may or may not be available this fall, but Long Jr. believes Benton can handle things if Qualls isn’t cleared by the time the season begins.
“He’s athletic and he’s 6-2,” Long Jr. said of Benton, an Opelika, Florida, resident who played last season at Butler Community College in Kansas. “He moves out there. I’m pretty strong on Charlie - he’s nice.”
Long Jr. is also pretty strong on West Virginia’s three-safety alignment behind him consisting of seniors Dravon Askew-Henry and Toyous Avery, and super-soph Kenny Robinson in the deep middle.
All three are extremely athletic.
“We’ve got Toyous back healthy. Dray is a fifth-year senior, and Kenny is the young one,” Long Jr. noted. “I like our group of guys. I feel like we’re going to be very strong coming up to Sept. 1.”
Up front, Long said West Virginia has got a lot of “gritters” who are going to go out and play hard every snap. “It’s not like we’ve got just a few guys that can give you 50, 60 plays and that’s it - we’ve got a lot of depth there,” he said.
Even some of the new additions such as four-year transfers Kenny Bigelow Jr. and Jabril Robinson, or recent JC imports such as Keith Washington and Josh Norwood, are capable of giving this year’s defense a big boost.
Long Jr. said these guys are putting in the time this summer to be ready to go when training camp begins in August.
“I’m very comfortable with them,” he said. “They have shown great amount of progress since they’ve been here knowing the defense and they’ve been putting in a lot of work in during summer workouts.
“I’m not too worried about that,” Long Jr. added. “When it comes to knowing the defense that comes with time and we’ve got some time until Sept. 1 to get that down.”
Overall, Long Jr. believes outsiders are not fully taking into account the athletes Dana Holgorsen and his assistant coaches have worked hard to assemble on this year’s defense, making it one of the more athletic units WVU has fielded on that side of the ball.
“It’s definitely there and that’s what I’ve been saying …” Long Jr. explained. “They don’t know what we have on this side of the ball. We’ve got a lot of talent on this side of the ball and it’s going to take us getting some experience and that comes with time.
“We’ve got some time before Sept. 1 that we can get together and get that done,” he concluded.