Perhaps the weakest unit on the West Virginia defense, at least on paper, the Mountaineer linebackers will have long road ahead of them as defensive coordinator Tony Gibson tries to replace three starters and two backups from last year’s defense.
The 2016 Linebacker Corps
The Mountaineers lost first team All-Big 12 Conference linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, Jared Barber and Shaq Petteway, all three of whom are currently on NFL rosters. West Virginia will also be without Edward Muldrow III and Isaiah Bruce, who both saw action in 2015 and graduated this past Spring.
West Virginia also lost a potential starter during training camp when true freshman Brendan Ferns went down with a knee injury, sidelining him for the season. Ferns has since underwent surgery, and is expected to recover in time for the 2017 season.
At least for the Missouri game, former walk-on Justin Arndt will get the nod at SAM. Arndt has impressed the West Virginia coaching staff enough to get the start in Xavier Preston’s absence while he is serving a one-game suspension. Arndt and Preston were locked in a position battle through camp, so it’s up in the air who will get the start after Preston rejoins the team.
Behind Arndt, and eventually Preston, is true freshman Zach Sandwisch. Sandwisch was the Ohio Defensive Player of the Year in 2015, and has put in enough work since he arrived in Morgantown to forgo a redshirt for his freshman season.
Al-Rasheed Benton steps into the middle linebacker role, and should be the most well-rounded player in the Mountaineer linebacking corps. Benton saw a decent amount of time last season, and looked solid. West Virginia will need Benton to use his experience and become a leader among the linebackers.
Spelling Al-Rasheed will be fellow junior Hodari Christian. Christian looked good during the annual Gold-Blue Spring Game at The Greenbrier in April, and should fill in nicely when Benton needs a rest.
Redshirt senior Sean Walters is currently listed as the starter at WILL, which came as a surprise to most as the Mountaineer coaching staff have really been talking up David Long, who is listed as the backup. Walters saw some action at linebacker last season but was mostly used on special teams, where he really stood out.
In Long’s case, it may be a situation where the coaching staff is trying to motivate a player by pushing him to fight for a starting job. Last season, Tony Gibson noted that he was ready to burn Long’s redshirt because he had made such a great impression during practice as a true freshman. I believe by the time Big 12 Conference play kicks off Long will have claimed the starting job, but Walters will still be seeing a good amount of playing time.
Player To Watch
I’m going to go ahead with my gut feeling and name David Long as the player to watch this season. Dana Holgorsen and Tony Gibson couldn’t stop talking him up during the spring and summer camps, and I believe the cream will rise to the top, as they say.