Sometimes it takes hindsight to realize just how good something was. Looking over last season’s statistics as I prepared to write this little piece on the 2011 Mountaineer defensive line, I couldn’t help but notice with renewed amazement how good last year’s defensive line was.
An old high school coach told me once that "third down in the trenches" usually decides a close football game. Third down - that down which is so often about two groups of colossal men battling each other for a mere couple of yards - was the exclusive territory of last year’s DL. Consider that opponents converted just 26 percent of 186 third down tries against the Mountaineers last year. More than half of those attempts were runs of less than three yards that did not move the sticks. What better testament to the work of immovable anchors like Chris Neild, and Scooter Berry can there be?
Unfortunately, Neild and Berry, along with Larry Ford have graduated. And even with regular contributors Julian Miller and mega-watch list maker Bruce Irvin still around, there is little doubt that this year’s line, while potentially still good enough to be dominant, has huge shoes to fill. This may be complicated by the fact that this year’s line is undersized compared to years’ past. Miller moves from defensive end to defensive tackle and gained 20 pounds in the offseason to prepare for the position change, while Irvin looks to become more of an every-down player, even as he continues to be a quarterback’s backfield nightmare.
What is unknown is whether or not junior Jorge Wright or senior Josh Taylor can become the kind of centerpiece at nose tackle that three-year starter Neild was. Defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich recently addressed this issue: "Our deal here defensively has hinged on ‘do we have a good nose (tackle) or don't we? If we're going to play an odd front like we do, it always required a guy that could line up and be a good nose guard."
"I think Jorge can do it. Is he going to be another Chris Neild? Not yet he's not. The only thing I want out of Jorge is to get better every day. Just get a little bit better, play a little bit longer, be a little bit more explosive."
Wildcards in the mix who may factor into the rotation later in the year include junior college transfer Shaq Rowell, who at 6-4, 300 pounds is the biggest body the Mountaineers can put on the line, and redshirt sophomore, Will Clarke, who Kirelawich referred to simply as "Marcellus Shale. Untapped millions."
Perhaps this year’s DL will not be the run-stopping force that last year’s was, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be good enough. Consider that WVU’s worst run defense in the last six years was the 2008 group that allowed 132 yards per game rushing. Last year’s group yielded just 86 yards per game. Kirelawich and Casteel have been reloading, not rebuilding, this unit for a while now, and they look to continue to do so this season.
We start previewing the Offensive side of the 2011 Mountaineers on Monday.