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2015 West Virginia Football Season Review: The Defense - Part 4 - The Returning Players

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No season review is complete without talking about the players who will return for next year. Part 4 of this five-part series, we take a look at who will come back and how much experience they had this year. Could the injury to Karl Joseph have been a blessing in disguise?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

In the first three parts of this series, we've focused a lot on the statistics of the 2015 defense. That theme is going to continue but it is going to be less about the numbers and more about the players in this segment. The 2015 defense was senior-laden but that doesn't mean the backups didn't get experience.

Many fans, rightfully so, are worried about a regression by the defense. A top Big 12 defense, led by seven senior and redshirt seniors, would appear to be due to falter. However, after reviewing the stats in Part I, I believe that the defense next year may be set up to be to match or exceed this years defense. Tony Gibson, despite some outside flirtation, has said he'd return.

Not only is Tony returning, but let us look at the "dawgs" who are returning. The WVU defense will possibly return their top defensive back in Daryl Worley, who led the team in pass breakups and interceptions. The defense will also return their sack and tackles for loss leader in Noble Nwachuku. Those are great pieces to return.

In 2011 when Dana Holgorsen took over as coach, West Virginia featured only 65 players on scholarship. Over the course of 5 years, Dana and his staff have worked on restoring the roster to the point of having all 85 scholarships accounted for. That small fact, which seems to trivial to fans, plays a large part in the defense. In 2012 and 2013, when the roster numbers were depleted, WVU was unable to sub out quality players on defense. Everyone thinks its remarkable that Karl Joseph only missed less than 30 snaps in the games he played in but a team with a deeper roster with more quality wouldn't have needed Karl to play so many snaps. In 2015, the entire team but specifically the defense was able to provide more playing time to more quality players.

Defensive Line

The WVU roster lists two players as seniors on the defensive line. One is Kyle Rose, a player who played in 50 games during his college career and has over 150 tackles as a nose guard. The other is backup Eric Kinsey. The remaining defensive line players, Noble Nwachuku, Christian Brown, and Darrien Howard all return.Noble was selected as an honorable mention for the All Big-12 team along the defensive line.  All 3 played in all 12 games this year, seeing meaningful time along the defensive line. Larry Jefferson, a JUCO transfer part of the 2015 recruiting cycle, now has a year of Big 12 play under his belt and hopes to provide a pass rushing speciality to the defense line.

As the line loses two seniors, Tony Gibson and staff planned nicely and have two freshman on redshirt this year, John Groh and Adam Shuler II, the latter a 3-star recruit out of Florida.

Linebackers

If there was a place to be worried about lost production, it would start at the linebacker position. The 3 starters on the West Virginia defense were all seniors. Nick Kwiatkoski, Shaq Petteway and Jared Barber played in 140 games combined, totaling over 400 tackles, almost 70 tackles for loss and 15 sacks. Nick Kwit also finished senior year as a first team All-Big 12 linebacker. Jared Barber garnered honorable mention. These three linebackers were definition of productivity. Yet, WVU has three backups, Xavier Preston, Al-Rasheed Benton and Marvin Gross who all played in 12 games this season. All three are also sophomores, meaning they have the ability to grow and man the position for a couple of years, giving the team stability.

Of the three sophomore backups, Xavier Preston may be the most heralded. He earned praise and nearly stole a starting spot from Nick Kwiatkoski this summer. Both Head Coach Dana Holgorsen and Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson heaped effusive praise on Preston, saying things like he might be our best defensive player and will be the best we've ever had.

Behind Preston, Benton and Gross is 3-star freshman David Long. Long, who came to WVU from Cincinnati, OH, was a tackling machine in high school, tallying over 100 tackles as a senior. He also earned All-District First Team. Listed at 6'0 and 200 pounds, he's on the lighter side but  year in the weight room should improve those numbers.

Defensive Backs

If Daryl Worley returns for his senior season as a Mountaineer, WVU will return its interception leader. Daryl has transformed himself into a do-it-all cover corner, capable of covering teams top receivers, playing both press and man coverage and excelling in the run coverage. Daryl would be the leader of the defense next year, having played in 34 games. Along side Daryl will be Nana Kyeremeh and Rasul Douglas. Nana appeared in 12 games this year while Rasul appeared in 8. Rasul was a 4-star cornerback recruit who came from the JUCO ranks and has the size/speed combination (6'3 200 lbs 4.5 speed)to give WVU Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson the ability to mix and match pieces.

WVU loses significant depth at cornerback with the losses of seniors Terrel Chestnut, Ricky Rumph III, and Antonio Crawford. Where the Mountaineers can make this up is their extreme depth at safety. WVU will lose Karl Joseph and the underrated KJ Dillon along with backup Dayron Wilson. The Mountaineers return starter Dravon Askew-Henry, who has started 25 straight games in two years. Alongside Askew-Henry will be Jarrod Harper and Jeremy Tyler, both of whom were thrust into starting positions with the injury to Karl Joseph. Tyler has been playing backup to both Harper and Dillon at their respective roles, allowing safeties coach Joe DeForest to keep all three players fresh. Harper played in all 12 games this year and Tyler played in 11, missing one due to a death in his family. Combined, the two junior safeties have played in over 70 games.  WVU's depth really shows at safety where the team has six freshman and redshirt freshman waiting in the wings.