2016 West Virginia Football Preview: Defensive Line

5th of a 10-part series previewing West Virginia’s football team ahead of the upcoming season.

And in case you missed them..

Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide Receivers and Tight Ends | Offensive Line

In this installment we’ll look at one of the thinner positions of the WVU football team: the defensive line. The Mountaineer lost two big contributors up front in Kyle Rose and Eric Kinsey, but also return arguably our two best guys from a year ago in Nwachukwu and Brown. The trio of starters are talented, experienced, and should be good to go, but we desperately need some of the less-experienced guys to step up and provide depth.

THE BIG THREE

Barring any unforseen developments, the starters along the front of West Virginia’s 3-3-5 stack will be 5th year seniors Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown and true senior Darrien Howard. The trio have 100 appearances and 40 starts between them, and will be counted on to anchor the Mountaineer defense early while we break in a whole lot of new guys in the 2nd and 3rd levels.

Noble Nwachukwu is entering his 3rd year as a starter and will be looking to build off a very strong 2nd half of the 2015 campaign. He’s the leading returning sack man in the Big XII with 8.5 (along with 13 TFL), and while he doesn’t really do anything that will blow you away like some of these freaks you see getting picked in the top 10, he’s worked himself into a very good 4 down player. Physically he has all the tools necessary to do the hell out of his job, which in our defense is to occupy blockers and clog up running lanes, and after 1400+ defensive snaps over the past two seasons there’s not a whole lot he hasn’t seen that would force him into a mistake. Noble is a true Mountaineer, and we need a big year out of him in 2016.

Christian Brown is, if anything, an even more workman-like version of Noble and has the experience of 1000+ of his own snaps to fall back on. He’s like the defensive lineman version of stumbling across The Fugitive on TV on a Tuesday night; you’re gonna stick with it, not because there’s nothing else on but because it’s familiar and you absolutely know that it’ll get the job done. Brown does everything Noble does, and while he may not have the same level of production (2 sacks, 4 TFL), he was every bit as big a reason why our linebackers were our three leading tacklers last year.

The new guy up front will be Darrien Howard. Howard came to Morgantown as a highly-rated linebacker prospect, but through his first 2 years had failed to make the impact that many expected of him. However, he came on strong last year, especially towards the end of the season, after a long overdue switch from linebacker to nose tackle. I say long overdue because the dear Darrien is a bit girthy. He was on the wrong side of 250 for a linebacker when he walked on campus and unfortunately only continued to head north from there. What that affords us though is a big fella in the middle who can actually move a bit, and Howard is far more athletic than his body-type would suggest. Despite his relative lack of production, he looks like he should be able to do all things we’ll ask of him (Coach Tall loves to talk about two-fers for our NTs, plays where they occupy 2 blockers), and if his athletic abilities give us a little something extra then that’s just a bonus. Overall, I expect his athleticism and experience to slot in nicely between two of our best defensive players.

THE ROTATION

Based on what I’ve been reading over the past few weeks, it seems like just about every other lineman on the roster is going to be fighting for playing time, and a big part of those starters’ success will be tied to how many of them can step up. Coach Tall says you need atleast 6 to be able to compete, so we need atleast 3 of Jonny Lewis, Alec Shriner, Adam Shuler, Jaleel Fields, Xavier Pegues, Larry Jefferson, Reese Donahue, and Jeff Pooler to emerge as serviceable options to keep the big guns fresh.

The good news is that our coaching staff seems enthusiastic about most of them. The bad news is that we have no idea what they can do, because most of them haven’t really made a meaningful contribution at the D1 level outside of the scout team.

One of the few who has is Morgantown native Jon Lewis. We already discussed him briefly in the Wide Receiver/Tight ends, but apparently he’s back at defensive line so we’re going to talk about him again. I’m really not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that they’ve moved him since spring, but since it still feels a bit early in this post to be getting negative we’ll remain optimistic about it for now. The redshirt junior has played in 14 games and has made a few tackles here and there, so I don’t feel awful about him being the guy penciled in behind Christian Brown.

Xavier Pegues is another guy who should hopefully be ready. He’s a JUCO transfer, but even though we’ve had some really nice hits in that department recently (Bruce Irvin, Kevin White, Mario Alford) you still never know if they’re going to be able to make a big impact right away. However, I’ll take it as a good sign that his name has come up positively a couple of times in things I’ve heard or read. He’s big and strong, and actually won the Mississippi Class 5A Defensive Player of the Year award in high school, so if nothing else he should at least be decent.

Jaleel Fields is a redshirt sophomore from Aliquippa, PA and played in 4 games last year, recording 8 tackles. He was a 3-star recruit coming out of high school and should be able to contribute at either end or nose, so he has some value in versatility.

Alec Shriner and Adam Shuler are a pair of redshirt freshmen who the coaches seem to be very high on lately. I don’t know a whole lot about either because we’ve never really seen them play, but they’re currently penciled into the #2 spots at nose tackle and defensive end respectively, so as of now we’re expecting them to be big contributors.

The runts of the litter are true freshmen Reese Donahue and Jeff Pooler. Donahue hails from Cabell Midland and plays football exactly the way you’d expect a 6’5 250 lb West Virginia lad would. Gibby has already come out and said that he won’t be redshirted, and from everything I’ve seen and read he’s just one of those kids whose motor is going to get him on the field in one way or another. I expect a lot of his early PT will be on special teams, but wouldn’t be surprised if he forces his way onto the field for some defensive snaps as well. Watching his high school tape, I can’t help but get the sense that he seems to have the best kind of bad attitude.

Pooler seems to be impressing coaches lately, as well. The 6’4 290 pounder enrolled early and has apparently made some great strides over the spring and summer. At this point he’s probably still a pretty solid candidate for a redshirt, but there’s a lot of time to impress between now and September 3.

The last guy competing for some playing time is redshirt senior Larry Jefferson. Jefferson actually came from the same JUCO that Pegues did, and is a recent example of one of those guys not really coming in ready to make a big splash. However, despite his lack of production, the 6’4 220 pounder appeared in 9 games last year in his first season on campus and looks a good athlete. He’s probably a bit too slight to have a chance of locking down any substantial early down playing time, but his frame and athleticism could be useful in spot duty on passing downs.

THE ROSTER FODDER

John Groh and DJ Carozza round out the bunch, but neither has or should expect to see much playing time. Carozza is a 5’11 310 lb redshirt junior from Parkersburg, WV who hasn’t seen any action in his 2 years, and you have to think that maybe his time has passed. Groh is a redshirt freshman and as such, probably has a little more time, but his size (6’2 228) may limit how much action he ever gets on a 3-man defensive front. I’d also take the fact that we haven’t heard his name mentioned at all over the summer (while the coaches are happy to mention other young guys like Shuler, Shriner, Donahue, and Pooler) as a sign that he’s not really in the picture for now.

POSITION GRADE: 4/5

Consider this 4 a rough average of a 4.5 for the starters and probably about a 3 for the rotation guys (starters 4.5 gets weighted more cuz they play more). The threesome of Noble, Brown, and Howard is big, talented, and experienced; they’ll be one of the 3 or 4 best groups in the league (really you could only talk me into Texas, Oklahoma, and Ok State having a better group of starters) and I feel confident that they can all do their jobs.

The question for this year though is, is simply putting in a shift going to be enough? We know that they can all play, but we’re breaking in three new starters at linebacker, 2 new starters at corner, and 2 new starters at safety; is simply occupying blockers and clogging gaps going to be enough from these guys or do we need a bit more?

The answer, in my opinion, is that we need a bit more. We don’t need huge numbers, but we need these guys to absolutely dominate the LOS, especially early on. Our defense forced the most turnovers in the conference last year, and a big part of that was our ability to stop the run (also 1st in the Big XII) and win early downs. That put teams in shitty situations where we could just go ball hawking, and it’s crucial that we replicate that this year. We need all those new guys on the back end to be able to lean on that front 3 while they get their feet under them, and if Noble and Co can consistently put our opponents in long yardage situations, I think we’ll be in good shape going forward.

As far as the rotation guys go, defensive line is one of the few spots on the roster where it seems like the recruiting maybe hasn’t quite caught up with the best of the Big 12, and as such, it’s hard to feel quite as confident about them. However, I think that a lot of this perception comes with the uncertainty: we haven’t seen most of them play, so we don’t really know what to expect, and as Mountaineer fans we’re conditioned to be pessimistic. On the other hand, a lot of their development will come down to coaching, and when considering that I can’t help but feel a bit better about the whole thing. I trust Tall at this point, and I definitely trust Gibby. They’ve done quite a bit with a lot less than we have now, and I’m going to trust their evaluations that guys like Shuler, Shriner, and Donahue are ready. We don’t need them to win games for us, we just need them to come in and not lose them, and I don’t feel like that’s asking too much.

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