6th in a 10-part series previewing West Virginia’s football team ahead of the upcoming season.
And in case you missed them, here are the previous installments..
Part 6 of our season preview will look at West Virginia’s linebacking corps. The Mountaineers have the task of replacing the production and experience of 3 multi-year starters, as well as 2 more multi-year contributors, but an athletic group of 1st-year starters and a fleet of highly-touted freshmen could see this year’s group ready to step right in and hit the ground running.
The leader of the group will be redshirt junior Al-Rasheed Benton, who will step into Jared Barber’s old spot in the middle of West Virginia’s 3-3-5. Al has gotten incrementally better in each of his 3 years in the program, and with 26 career appearances, he’s played in every game he’s been eligible for. He was the Defensive POG in his lone career start against Liberty last year, and I don’t think he’ll miss a beat in his first year as a full-time starter.
First and foremost, Al is a fantastic athlete. He gets sideline-to-sideline extremely well and will be an upgrade over Barber with regards to how well he handles himself in space. This will benefit him both against the speedy backs and diverse yet potent passing attacks that are littered around the conference.
Second, is his work ethic, and even more importantly, his willingness to learn. Al maybe hasn’t gotten as much playing time to this point as he would’ve thought when he signed here, but by all accounts he has fully taken advantage of playing under Kwiatkoski and Barber in terms how he sees and prepares for the game. He’s learned what to watch for on film, he’s learned how to recognize and take advantage of those things in a game, and now he just has to go out there and do it all the time.
The concern with Al will be how well he handles himself in the muck. At 6’1 236 he is by no means a small dude, but he’s going to have to prove to teams that he’s capable of consistently stuffing people the point of attack. One of the main reasons we were able to lead the league in rush defense last year was that Barber was absolutely not afraid to stick his face in against anybody. He wasn’t the best athlete, but if you were within Jared Barber’s general parameter and in his way you were going to get hit. We need that kind of attitude on the inside from Benton, as well. He’s a terrific athlete and has put in the time, and I think he’s ready to step up and be a leader on this defense.
SAM AND WILL
The Mountaineers return some multi-year contributors on the outside as well, and I’m guessing that there will be more than a couple guys in the mix for the lion’s share of the time at both outside backer positions. Justin Arndt, Sean Walters, Xavier Preston, and David Long are all expected to be fighting for the spots flanking Al Benton. Let’s start with Arndt.
Justin Arndt is a former walk-on from Martinsburg, WV, but don’t let that fool you: the guy can absolutely play. The 5th year senior has 35 career appearances for the Mountaineers, including seeing time in all 13 games last year. He’s been a wildman on special teams for a few years now, but last year he actually stepped in and contributed a bit on defense as well, and now he’s parlayed that, with the help of a ridiculous work ethic (coaches can’t stop talking about how good of a spring and summer he’s had), into a starting role.
The only concern with Arndt is that he’s kinda small. He’s a more than good enough athlete to hold his own in space, but I just mentioned how good our run defense was last year; you have to wonder if at 5’11 215 he’ll be able to hold up as a full-time player. That’s not very big for an outside linebacker, and if I notice it you can guarantee that opposing coaches will too, and they’ll definitely try to test him out there. Whether or not he passes will determine how big of a factor he’s going to be this year.
That’s especially true with a guy like Xavier Preston breathing down his throat. Preston was actually thought to be the guy to step in at Sam and replace Nick Kwiatkoski before Arndt up and snatched it from him this spring. However, the battle seems like more of a 1a-1b situation than a true 1-2.
Preston has 22 career appearances, including seeing 142 defensive snaps while playing in all 13 games last year. He’s a ridiculously athletic kid, and at times flashed enough ability for Gibby to say, “He’s going to be as good as we’ve had here.” Hyperbole or not, you don’t just throw something like that out there if you don’t at least somewhat believe it. Now we need Preston to make good on that potential.
The most important thing for Xavier heading into 2016 is consistency. Often times the best athletes have to learn to turn down their galavanting; they get so used to being able to recover from their mistakes that they never actually learn to correct them. This is what’s plagued Preston throughout his career. Doing your own thing can result in some spectacular plays, but more often than not you’re going to be hanging your teammates out to dry. If Xavier can stay a bit more disciplined and function a cog within our defensive machine then he has more than enough talent to win the starting job back.
On the other side of Benton is the competition between Walters and Long for the Will position. Walters is a 6’2 230 lb 5th year senior with 30 career appearances, including 12 out of 13 games last year. More than half of his snaps were on special teams, but he flashed the ability to make some plays and actually led the team in special teams tackles. This experience is sure to help him acquit himself on the weak side, because if nothing else special teams teaches you how to play in space.
Pushing him for playing time is redshirt freshman David Long. Long is a great athlete who impressed during his redshirt season by winning Scout Team Champion four times, and has apparently continued that trend with a fantastic spring and summer. Dravon Henry singled him out as a guy to keep an eye on this fall, and anytime a player gives recognition like that we should probably pay attention.
The main concern about Long will be his size. Like Arndt he’s only 5’11, and even though he’s a bit sturdier at 225 you know that he’s going to have to prove to people that he’s willing to stop the run. By all accounts he’s got a fantastic motor though, so hopefully he can make up for some of that size through sheer effort.
THE OTHER MIKE
Rounding out the 2-deep is redshirt junior Hodari Christian. Christian has 9 career appearances, including 7 games last year, and should provide some nice depth in the middle. He’s another talented guy who maybe hasn’t played as much as he thought he would to this point, but unlike some of his teammates who seem to finally be coming good on some of their potential, there’s the perception that his development has maybe started to stagnate. I hope to be proven wrong, but I certainly haven’t heard a whole lot about him over the summer, and though he had a decent spring game (couple tackles and an INT), he hasn’t turned that into any real push for major playing time. He’s a big body and a decent athlete, and I still think he’ll get some spot duty in running situations, but with Al locking up the starting job and some freshmen now breathing down his neck, you have to wonder if maybe he’s getting lost in the shuffle a bit.
Backing up these 6 lads is the best crop of linebackers that we’ve managed to recruit in a long time. It seemed like the commitments just came one after the other, and before you knew it we had 4 guys signed up who will probably in the mix for playing time this year.
The most-hyped of the bunch is 4-star Brendan Ferns, whose brother Micheal is already on the squad as a tight end/fullback. Ferns is a long, athletic 6’3 220 pounder who coaches are already comparing to Nick Kwiatkoski, which is extremely high praise around these parts. The difference is that Nick was recruited as a safety and probably didn’t weigh 220 until his second year on campus, so Brendan is way ahead of schedule in that regard.
Heading into 2016, Ferns should definitely expect to find his way onto the field for some special teams work and looks talented enough to play either inside or outside at backer. He also looks ready athletically, so how early he’s able to contribute will probably come down to how quickly he can pick up the scheme.
Zach Sandwisch is a second highly touted outside backer from Ohio who will probably play on the strong side for us. Besides having a fun name, the 6’2 210 pounder led his high school team to back-to-back State Championships his junior and senior seasons while earning the Ohio Division III Defensive Player of the Year award. The scouting report on him is that he’s not the biggest or the fastest, but he’s definitely the toughest, as is evidenced by the fact that he played in the State Championship game his senior year with a torn labrum and dislocated shoulder. As a competitor he should expect to challenge for at least some special teams duties this year, but even if he just ends up adding depth or even redshirting this year, you know he’s going to have a big impact on our program before he leaves.
Adam Hensley is a third Ohio kid who will be able to come in and add depth at any of the three linebacker positions, but from what I’m reading it seems like his home will be at Mike. The one thing that you see talked about over and over with Adam is his frame; at 6’3.5 he’s already the tallest of the new guys, but the coaches are all commenting about how even at 220 pounds he looks skinny. If that’s the case then I can’t wait to see what kind of monster he turns into after a year or two in a college lifting and nutrition program.
The best case scenario for Adam this year will probably be to push Hodari Christian for the #2 spot at Mike while also competing for time on special teams. As big and physical as he is, there are some lingering concerns about lateral quickness, so he may end up needing that year of conditioning to catch his feet up with the rest of his body before he’s ready to be an every-down contributor.
The final member of the class is Freeport, PA native Logan Thimons. Thimons also projects as a Mike for us, and was rated as the 12th-best inside backer prospect nationally. Like Sandwisch, he’s another guy that won’t blow you away athletically, but he has a knack for finding ball carriers and putting them on the ground. The 6’1 220 pounder had 161 tackles, 33 TFL, and 15.5 sacks in 12 games last year on the way to the PA Football News Class 2A Defensive Player of the Year award. I don’t care who you’re playing against, that is elite production. From what I’ve read he played along the line a bit in high school, so he might be a decent bet for a redshirt while he adjusts to standing up all the time, but once the game slows down for him, whether it’s this year or sometime further down the road, he’s going to be a very solid player for us.
THE NEAR AND DEAR
The rest of the linebackers on the roster are a mixture of true and redshirt freshmen walk-ons from West Virginia. None of Shea Campbell, Troy Lilly, Max Chefren, Jonah Campbell, or Carter Walburn should figure to be in the picture this year, but as someone who was once in their shoes and didn’t jump on the opportunity, I’d like to send a message on the off chance that one of them sees this.
Dudes, stay the course. Look to people like Justin Arndt for motivation, and realize that with a ton of hard work that could be you. 5 years isn’t a long time in the grand scheme of things, and trust me, you’ll regret it if don’t take full advantage of this opportunity while it’s available to you.
POSITION GRADE: 4/5
Last year the linebackers were one of the strengths of our defense, and overall I think this year’s group is ready to pick up right where they left off. They may not have been every down contributors, but almost everyone on the 2-deep has multiple years of game experience, and as a unit they’re probably one of the most athletic groups we’ve had here. What’s even better is that they have a talented and versatile group of freshmen that will be right on their heels and pushing them every step of the way.
Looking at it on a position-by-position basis, the only place you can say we definitely took a step back is at Sam, and even there I have a hunch that we might be pleasantly surprised by mid-season. I’m not saying that either Justin Arndt or Xavier Preston are going to step in and make us forget about Nick Kwiatkoski, but they’re both talented guys who will only get better with game time, and Preston especially has the ability to be very special.
As for the Will spot, I think both Walters and Long are capable of giving us what Shaq Petteway did last year. Both are at least as athletic as Shaq was, and as well as he played last year, people seem to forget that it was his first year in the position, as well.
At Mike I think we’ll actually see a notable improvement. Jared Barber was a fan favorite, but as experienced and productive as he was he was always somewhat limited athletically. Al Benton has none of those limitations, and when you think about it he has at least some of that same experience, as well. He’s been groomed by Tony Gibson for three years for this opportunity, and based on everything I’ve seen and heard he’s not going to let it pass him by.
Overall I think West Virginia fans are in for a fun year with these guys. It’s never going to be easy to replace guys like Barber, Kwit, and Shaq, or the 200+ tackles that they had between them last year, but I also think this is going to be the first year where we really see how much our depth of talent has improved since Dana got here. We just aren’t used to seeing our team be able reload like this, where even though we’re losing several multi-year contributors, we have several more ready step in to replace them. I’m just praying that Gibby and Co can get these guys to gel quickly, because I think they have the potential to be really, really good.