After last season, WVU lost three linebackers to graduation. Two went to the NFL. J.T. Thomas was drafted by the Chicago Bears, and Anthony Leonard was briefly a member of the New England Patriots before getting released. The Mountaineers also lost Pat Lazear. Projected starter for this season, Branko Busick, spent his summer learning the craft of armed robbery and is no longer with the team.
Therefore, the linebacker position for the Mountaineers is one in which the search for experience will be at a premium.
During the first two weeks of practice for the Mountaineers, new Head Coach, Dana Holgorsen, would hold a brief press conference at the end. When reporters asked what players stood out to him in practice, Najee Goode was usually one of the players Holgorsen would name. The next question is, which linebacker position will Goode play? Mike, Sam, or Will? That's Middle, Strong, and Weakside linebacker. The Senior brings experience and leadership to a position that Defensive Coordinator, Jeff Casteel, is trying to figure out how to make the pieces fit. Goode can play any of the three, but who are those around him jockeying for position?
We've got to find the right guys for those roles,"Jeff Casteel said, who also doubles as linebackers coach. "Everyone is going to have a piece of it in some way."
Where there is a lack of experience, there is some talent. Casey Vance, Doug Rigg, Jewone Snow, and JUCO transfer, Josh Francis have all made good impressions in fall camp. Goode is going to be one of the three starters at LB. Who will the other two be? Let's discuss.
"Josh Francis has as much talent as anyone on our team," Dana Holgorsen said. "We're just trying to get him pointed in the right direction now."
Francis was an All-American at Lackawanna St. before arriving in Morgantown. He was offered by Oregon, Kansas St., and Rutgers. He has played safety, but grew into a linebacker's body. Casteel envisioned Francis at one of the outside linebacker spots when he was recruited, but has been battling with Seneca Rocks native, Casey Vance, for the starting weakside linebacker spot. Vance backed up J.T. Thomas last season, and played in 12 of 13 games. He became well known for forcing a fumble in the PITT game last season.
So, who does Dana Holgorsen see winning that position battle? He spoke about it during his press conference yesterday.
"Casey Vance has been playing okay," Holgorsen told reporters. "When you have a guy like Josh Francis behind him, who is more talented, but if he isn’t going in the right direction, we have to play the other guy."
That solves the weakside position. Kind of. What about the strongside? Doug Rigg and Tyler Anderson will play at that spot. Doug Rigg has more experience than Anderson and played a reserve role at strongside linebacker and played a lot on special teams. Anderson is a former walk-on and is now a red-shirt sophomore. Rigg will likely get the start here.
With the OLB spots figured out, that leaves Goode starting in the middle. Right? Well...
"Najee is... going to be the leader in our linebacker room," Casteel said. "The only issue with him is that I don't know exactly where we're going to play him yet.... It's basically going to depend on the other kids.
The essential thing to learn is that Goode is a versatile player and leader. It doesn't matter which position he lines up in, he will be the leader of the linebacking corps. He can call the plays and reads from any of the three positions and get his fellow teammates in the proper place.
"If guys don't know what to do, I can tell them," Goode said on Monday. "For the most part, they know, but when they're not sure, I can tell them to look for this and that, give them hints and cheats so they can play with their natural ability."
Jewone Snow is another player that Holgorsen has mentioned favorably during his press-conferences. The redshirt freshman has a great pedigree. His father, Garland Rivers, was an All-American cornerback at Michigan in the 80's. He has an uncle, Percy Snow, that played in the NFL and another uncle in Eric Snow that played in the NBA. Jewone's game has gotten faster because he has dropped some weight, and it's shown in camp. He has gotten reps ahead of Senior Notre Dame transfer, Steve Paskorz.
There is talent among this group, but a lack of experience may show early in the season. We just need to trust in Jeff Casteel to figure out how to put the puzzle together. If he figures out who to play, where to play them, and when to play them, this could be a solid unit before the end of the season.
After discussing the players, this is how I project the depth chart at linebacker:
Starter- Casey Vance
2nd String- Josh Francis
Starter- Najee Goode
2nd String- Jewone Snow
3rd String- Steve Paskorz
Starter- Doug Rigg
2nd String- Tyler Anderson
Check later for a preview of the D-Line. I'm sure some guy named Bruce will be discussed.