Defending a Reputation

  • By Shannon McNamara
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  • April 08, 2011 12:07 PM
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MORGANTOWN, W. Va. - Coach Bill Stewart looked directly into the camera, careful not to mince his words, and issued a declaration to his West Virginia University football team.

“Self-motivation,” he said following the Mountaineers’ fourth practice of the 2011 spring season. “We had a little discussion about that. We’re looking for self-starters and motivators.”

Linebacker Najee Goode welcomes Coach Stewart’s challenge with open arms. A fifth-year senior, he has spent the past seasons learning from some of the greatest defensive athletes to ever wear the Old Gold and Blue uniform. He knows his time to step-up has arrived.

“I’m trying to step-up and tell the younger guys to get going and to pay attention,” the Cleveland, Ohio, native explained. “Casey Vance and I are the only (linebackers) leaving next year. The younger guys will be the ones that stay. Just like last year’s seniors wanted us to do well, I want to see these young guys do well, too. I’m trying to instruct them.”

Goode better reload his chalk box because he has a handful of pupils to teach. Part of a defense that was severely impacted by attrition – seven starts from the 2010 season have since moved on - the linebacker corps took one of the harshest hits, as four-year contributors J.T. Thomas, Pat Lazear and Anthony Leonard all graduated.

Goode says he is still adjusting to the departure of his teammates. While he believes the younger guys are catching on and will contribute down the road, he misses the camaraderie he shared with last year’s unit.

“It is a completely different look,” he said. “(Last year), J.T. used to start our practices by saying something stupid. We have other guys that are doing that now, and Branko (Busick) always has a joke. We have to start practice with a little joke just to get everything moving.”

Jokes alone will not sustain the memory of Goode’s former teammates. The defense as a whole enjoyed one of its most successful seasons last year, closing out 2010 ranked in the Top 10 nationally in six statistical categories.

“There’s a lot of pride there,” Goode said of the team’s national rank and the reputation it earned. “The young guys may not understand yet what it takes to be the top defense, but that’s why we have spring ball. That’s why we put on full pads and go hard – we’re trying to teach them.”

Goode’s on-field experience serves as one of his best teaching tools. Forced into the starting strong-side linebacker position at the onset of the 2010 season after Lazear sustained a knee injury, he ranked eighth on the team with 47 tackles. He tallied 26 solo stops, three sacks and four pass breakups. A daunting presence on almost every down, Goode stood out early in the year, as his eight-yard tackle for loss in overtime at Marshall helped solidify the Mountaineers’ come-from-behind victory.

Unsure of whether he’ll get the nod at strong or weak side this fall, Goode says he’s prepared to play wherever defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel slots him.

“The main thing is coach Casteel wants guys out there that know what they’re doing,” he explained. “I’m trying to bring everyone along with me. Coaches always say ‘plug people in,’ and we need to plug our younger guys in. We really don’t have a depth chart right now. We just have guys that can play, and we’re trying to see where they fit in best.

“Like coach always says, he’s going to play his best 11, not his 11 best.”

One advantage this year’s defensive unit has over last season’s is its speed. Though the Mountaineers lost size up front, Goode says the underclassmen are succeeding at running hard to the ball. In particular, newcomer Josh Francis, a junior linebacker out of Lackawanna College, has used his unique skill set to stand out from the pack.

“He has great athleticism and is so fast,” Goode said of Francis before bursting into laughter. “He may be faster than me, but I’m not giving him the edge that easily.

“You can see that Josh wants to learn and play. Coach is trying to give him everything, but this defense is not an easy defense to learn. The stuff that we build on each day, he is already trying to get better at. He’s going to play. Coach Stewart already has him on special teams. He’s going to make a big impact there because he can get to the ball.”

Goode and Vance have taken it upon themselves to help bring Francis along.

“He’s just trying to learn and get better,” Goode expanded. “We want to make sure he knows what he’s doing so he can use all of his abilities. He has a lot of talent.”

Goode stresses that the defense has a lot of work to cram into the brief spring season. He believes that it is important for the unit to be on the same page by the time the Gold-Blue Game kicks-off on April 29.

“I want everyone to step up, know his role and understand what it takes to be a good defense,” he said. “Guys like myself, Keith (Tandy), Bruce (Irvin) and Julian (Miller) – we know and we understand. They need to know what it takes to come in here and do the little stuff. Right now, the guys are trying to learn every day, and they’re really focused on their positions. They also need to step back and take it upon themselves to do what they need to do.

“That’s what we’re trying to get by April 29 – we want guys to do what they need to do, on and off the field. If they do that, we’ll be good.”

Ownership – a valued quality in a self-starter. Already speaking the same language as his head coach, Goode is warmly embracing his leadership role and building his own reputation.

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