By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
August 12, 2008
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Ask Jeff Casteel a question about his defense and he will give you an honest answer: he doesn’t know. Ask him if senior linebacker Reed Williams’ surgically repaired shoulder will be ready to go for Villanova? He doesn’t know.
Ask him how a remodeled secondary will fare with at least four new starters? He doesn’t know.
Ask him if his unit will be as productive as last year’s 11 that ranked seventh in the country in total defense and according to Head Coach Bill Stewart was the biggest reason West Virginia was able to defeat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl? He doesn’t know.
What he does know for sure is that his defense still has plenty of work to do before it defends someone for real on Saturday, Aug. 30.
“There isn’t one group that is doing an outstanding job,” Casteel said Monday evening. “We’re in a process and we keep installing things every day. That will slow down eventually, but we have a long way to go as a group.”
On paper the strongest area of the defense is a linebacker corps that could be two deep at all three spots. Even if Williams isn’t ready for Villanova West Virginia has enough quality players at middle linebacker to get by. Yet having Williams on the field makes a big difference because he knows the defense so well. Senior Mortty Ivy and sophomore J.T. Thomas are also big-league performers.
“The defense has some linebackers who can make some plays,” Casteel said. “But the guys that went unsung were those guys with their hands in the dirt. Those guys are the ones that make plays for the linebackers and our linebackers realize that.”
One of the young linebackers really coming on this fall is sophomore Pat Lazear, who admits he has a much better understanding of the defense now that he has a spring under his belt.
“Pat played well and we moved him the last weeks of spring practice,” Casteel said. “He has had a good camp and we’re pushing him – along with his teammates. We have some options but we’re looking for him to take the job. He isn’t a finished product by any means but he’s making progress on the field every day.”
West Virginia’s defense got a big boost from the NCAA Tuesday afternoon when senior Pat Liebig was finally cleared to play a fifth season. Liebig knows all three defensive line positions and his strength, maturity and knowledge of the defense makes him a real appealing commodity in the eyes of defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich. If teams chose to go big and try to run the ball down West Virginia’s throat Kirelawich has another big guy to go to up front along with sophomores Chris Neild and Scooter Berry.
The defensive backend remains a work in progress right now with secondary coaches David Lockwood and Steve Dunlap rotating different combinations to try and find the right five guys. One of those five could be 6-foot-4-inch true freshman Robert Sands at safety. Despite being in camp for just a week and a half, Casteel wouldn’t be surprised if Sands is on the field in the opener against Villanova.
“He has really progressed and he’s a smart kid and a great athlete,” Casteel said. “We’re really pleased with him. He has a lot of ability but he’s going to make a lot of mistakes as a young guy. Every day he is making plays and (Monday) he was running with the ones and the twos.”
One of the categories Casteel’s defenses have always excelled in is turnovers caused. Last year the Mountaineers were ranked ninth in the country in turnover margin, second in the country in fumbles gained and tied for 35th in the country in interceptions.
“It’s a game of turnovers and it’s something we stress with our guys,” Casteel said. “We try to get that in our mind and that is a game changer, and we’re trying to get that into their minds at camp.
“We’re going to get as many fast guys on the field as we can and those who can tackle in space,” Casteel added. “That’s the game. It’s a strike game at this level – it’s not a collision game that you might see in a high school game where they just run into each other. At this level, you have to move your feet and be able to strike and those are the types of things that we’re trying to get across to our guys.”
With so many schools now adopting some form of the spread offense Jeff Casteel says it is doubly important for defenses to have as many fast guys on the field as possible.
“When you spread the field you put an athlete in space they have to make tackles, and that’s the bottom line,” Casteel said. “I think people have adjusted to it. You spread the field and when you get one-on-one with Pat White, which is usually a good thing for the offense, it’s a style of play and I think people have adjusted to it. We consider ourselves successful and our goal is always to keep the opponent to 14 points or less.”
Tuesday morning Bill Stewart said he gave the pups on special team an opportunity to show what they can do, partly to see them but also to give Pat McAfee’s a leg a rest.
“We have a long way to go with punting and that’s why you have guys like Pat McAfee, Scott Kozlowski and Gregg Pugnetti here - they are all upperclassmen and they’ve done the routine,” Stewart said.
Stewart continues to rave about Pat White’s passing and his growing pocket presence.
“Pat had a tremendous day stepping up, avoiding the rush, seeing the coverage and that was really good,” Stewart said.
Unhappy with the team’s discipline during Monday’s practice, Stewart made a point to hammer home the point afterward. The players apparently got the message because only one was required to run the stadium steps Tuesday morning.
“We’re getting better,” Stewart said. “When we get to where we don’t have to put any on the stadium steps, and they will do what we tell them to do, then we’ll be even better. It’s just a form of discipline and we will have discipline in this program. We’ve always had it, we will continue to have it, and I know we will have it in the future.”
When asked which freshman might see the field this year Stewart flashed a smile, sighed, stepped back for a second from the podium and then offered a few words of caution.
“You have to remember, these guys are just freshmen,” Stewart said before plowing through a somewhat sizable list of players.
“Offensively I think Josh Jenkins might have a chance,” Stewart said. “At tight end/fullback I think Tyler Urban has a chance. I think (invited walk-on) Ricky Kovatch has a chance coming out of Ohio, and I think Ryan Clarke has a chance (at fullback).
“As for running back we don’t have a backup running back other than Jock Sanders,” Stewart said. “We would put Jarrett Brown at quarterback and play Pat White at running back before I’m going to put someone in there that is going to fumble the football.”
Stewart then shifted his attention to defense.
“I think Robert Sands has a chance to step up and play in the secondary,” Stewart said. “The jury is still out but Sands has done some nice things.
“Mark Rodgers might have a chance to play on all special teams – Ricky Kovatch – these types of players that can run fast,” Stewart said. “D. J. Thomas might be on special teams. We have a tremendous amount of speed at West Virginia and we’re very blessed, so that would be a place for those guys to play.”
For all of the talk about recruiting, easily West Virginia’s best recruit this year was getting a fifth year for defensive lineman Pat Liebig. Some have ventured to guess that Liebig will be worth at least 15-20 plays this year. My suspicion is that number will be considerably higher because of his knowledge of the defense and his maturity. It’s hard to imagine a 25-year-old blowing up the defense.
Before Tuesday’s press conference Stewart welcomed CNNSI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel and Washington Post college football writer Steve Yanda to the morning proceedings. Both are in town to do pieces on Stewart and the Mountaineer football program.