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West Virginia Mountaineers Spring Practice Preview: Defensive Line

Our spring practice preview schedule:

After four days of breaking down different positions on the offensive side of the ball, we here at the Smoking Musket now turn our attention to the defensive side. Today, we're going to break down the defensive line. The DL has the player most opposing coaches are going to focus on this year: Bruce Irvin. We'll tell you why opposing teams may end up regretting their focus on Irvin.

This year, defensive coordinator, Jeff Casteel, faces one of the biggest challenges of his Mountaineer coaching tenure by having to replace 7 defensive starters that WVU lost to graduation or leaving early for the NFL. Defensive Line coach Bill Kirelawich has the task of finding replacements for two starters after losing Scooter Berry and Chris Neild to graduation. With all of the changes on defense this year, this is Casteel's main goal as he told WV Metro News:

"What we have to do is just get them all on the same page, make sure we’re all running the same coverage at the same time, make sure we’re executing the same blitz at the same time. As simple as that sounds, sometimes that becomes an issue."

Bruce Irvin should be the star of the defense this upcoming season as he transitions from primarily playing on third downs to being an every down player. Irvin had led the Big East in sacks last season with 14. That total was also good enough to rank him 2nd in the nation in that category. Again, all while mainly playing on 3rd down. His sacks made up more than half of his total tackles last season (22). Jeff Casteel believes Irvin was the main reason why the Mountaineers finished 2nd in the nation on 3rd down defense. Dave Hickman of the West Virginia Gazette had a great article breaking down why a talent like Irvin wasn't an every down lineman last year. To get his body ready for the added playing time, Irvin has said that he hits the weight room two or three times a day. Brian Bennett of ESPN gives Irvin 5-to-1 odds of being the Big East defensive player of the year.

Irvin told Drew Rubenstein of the Dominion Post that he is excited to have Dana Holgorsen as a new offensive coordinator. Why would a defensive lineman get excited about having a new offensive coordinator?

"Seeing the numbers that Holgorsen puts up year-in and year-out, you have no choice but to get excited. If the offense puts up numbers, man, and we make teams play catch-up, then that's more passing situations for us," Irvin said with a grin stretched across his face.

The Mountaineers led the Big East in sacks last season, and if Holgorsen's offense does indeed light up the scoreboard, not only will Irvin have a monster season, but his other teammates on the D-line will thrive as well. 

With all the talk about Irvin, senior Julian Miller is the only returning starter on the line. Miller has had 9 sacks in each of the past 2 seasons and was 6th on the team in tackles with 54. Now, Miller is making the move from defensive end to tackle to give Irvin more opportunities on the outside. At 260lbs., Miller is on the light side for a DT, but Casteel hopes that Miller's speed will keep him from getting bogged down by bigger offensive linemen. With Miller's speed and history of getting to the QB, if teams double-team Irvin and neglect Miller, he could easily beat his sack numbers from the past two seasons.

Junior Jorge Wright and Sr. Josh Taylor return to battle for the NT vacated by Neild. They have appeared in a combined 44 games between the two of them. Wright appeared in 12 games had 10 tackles and 1 forced fumble. Taylor had 13 tackles and 1 forced fumble in 11 games. Bill Stewart thinks that Wright has the better chance to replace Neild at NT.  Redshirt freshman Trevor Demko also looks to get in the mix at NT.

Redshirt sophomore Will Clarke showed promise at the beginning of last season until a high ankle sprain slowed him. Clarke now looks to get a number of snaps as Irvin's backup. If he comes on this spring and later in the fall, he has a chance to appear in packages playing opposite Irvin. Redshirt juniors J.B. Lageman and C.J. Huffman saw limited playing time last year but will add depth to interior of the line this year. Walk-on redshirt freshman Ted Reitschlin could see some playing time on the end.

The pass rush for the Mountaineers should be one of the best in the Big East, if not the nation for the upcoming season. We told you that the 'Eers ranked 2nd nationally in third down defense and sacks last season. Because of Scooter Berry and Chris Neild, they also ranked 2nd in rushing defense. They're gone, so that means that Miller, Taylor, Wright, and Demko has some big britches to fill. The line will be lighter this season, but it will also be quicker. If the offense lights it up and forces opposing defenses to pass the ball, then the rush defense may not need to be as dominant as it was last season. 

The talk around this upcoming season is about Dana Holgorsen's offense and the all-time records it could shatter. Bruce Irvin has a chance to break some records himself in his Senior season. Former Mountaineer Canute Curtis holds both the single-season (16.5) and career sack record (34.5) for the Mountaineers. While the reaching the career record may be a stretch for Irvin (he would need 21 sacks), Curtis' single-season record is in serious jeopardy of coming down this season.

Defensive Line Depth Chart:

DT #1-Julian Miller

DT #2- J.B. Lageman

DT #3- C.J. Huffman


NT #1- Jorge Wright

NT #2- Josh Taylor

NT #3- Trevor Demko


DE #1- Bruce Irvin

DE #2- Will Clarke

DE #3- Ted Rietschlin