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An Early Look at How West Virginia's Pieces Fit Vic Koenning's Defensive Puzzle

The Mountaineers bring back a bunch of contributors from a unit that played somewhere between 8 and 9 games of good-to-very good defense last year. Let's take an early look at where (and how) those pieces might fit into what Vic Koenning likes to do defensively.

Neal Brown's air raid roots have been front and center in the spotlight since his arrival in Morgantown, but anyone who paid attention to the Troy Trojans over these last few years knows that their work in the game's other two phases played every bit as much a part in their rise. One of the men most responsible for that success was defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who we now have the good fortune of calling our own after he decided to follow his head ball coach home on those Country Roads. Koenning has engineered his share of great defenses over the years, with highly productive stints at Clemson (2005-2008), Kansas State (2009), and Illinois (2010-2011) prior to the recent run at Troy (2014-2018). I thought it'd be fun to think through what his first unit might look like in Morgantown.

The first thing we need to do, I suppose, is establish exactly what it is that Vic Koenning likes to do defensively. Much of the early discussion among fans has understandably centered around potential issues related to transitioning from a three-man front to a four-man look, but Koenning actually laughed off the notion that he was "married" to any one scheme in his first interview. Ian Boyd of Football Study Hall describes Koenning's defenses like this in his recent Air Raid Remix piece:

"Koenning has a long career running 4-2-5/3-3-5 defenses that blur the differences between the schemes with movement and stemming between multiple formations. The Trojan defense had a number of hybrid positions with confusing names like the “bandit” (OLB/DE hybrid), “cat safety” (safety aligned to the field), and “spear safety” (OLB aligned to the field)."

This is confirmed by a quick glance at Troy's most recent depth chart from the Dollar General Bowl, which shows just three true defensive lineman. So maybe our concerns are ill-founded? Either way, we've famously run the 3-3-5 since Tony Gibson took over as DC in 2014 and our roster is stocked with a variety of hybrid players, especially at safety, which on paper at least means we should have most of the pieces necessary to execute Koenning's philosophy.

Diving into how he likes to play, ye loyal readers will recall the "5 Stats That Will Define Us" piece I wrote last summer in which I discussed how examining stats like Defensive Success Rate, IsoPPP, and Havoc Rate can provide insight into how defenses weigh risk vs reward (i.e. how aggressively they play). Let's put Koenning's defenses at Troy under that microscope.

2015: 44.5% Defensive Success Rate (96th), 1.14 IsoPPP (13th), 13.6% Havoc Rate (104th)

2016: 35.7% (12th), 1.26 (66th), 18.9% (17th)

2017: 37.7% (29th), 1.09 (33rd), 20.5% (8th)

2018: 39.6% (44th), 1.09 (28th), 19.6% (11th)

So before we even get into Troy's defensive profile I want to take a second to appreciate two of the trends that you see there. First and foremost, you have to love the improvement between 2015 and 2016. That's consistent with the improvement seen between years 1 and 2 at all three of Koenning's stops mentioned above, and suggests that once he has the chance to coach his guys up a bit, they actually do, ya know, get better. Which probably means he's a really good coach. Which is nice.

You also have to appreciate the consistency seen in years 2-4, which suggests that Koenning's defenses have a clear identity - he knows how he wants his guys to play and knows how to get them to play that way.

Regarding what that identity is, I've heard some buzz on the interwebs about Koenning being a bend-but-don't-break kind of guy, but while that was certainly true in that first year at Troy, it could just as easily be attributed to his playing it conservatively because he didn't feel comfortable asking that first group to do everything he wanted them to. Years 2-4 actually show vast improvement in Success Rate and Havoc Rate with only marginal decreases in IsoPPP, and when examined together the numbers paint the picture of a very solid all-around unit - one that manages to play aggressively and create havoc without sacrificing much in the way of explosive plays on the back end.

Koenning accomplishes this by utilizing presnap movement to disguise coverage and pressure and create "edges and backstops", which explains the use of the aforementioned hybrids - to play that way you need multiple guys who are able to do multiple things without giving the offense any clues about who might be dropping into which zone or who might be blitzing from where. Here's how he explained it in a recent interview:

"Growing up playing ball, if you throw the ball and don’t have a backstop, you miss the ball and you’re running down the street. You spend all your time chasing the ball."

“The best way of saying it is we’re going to make the other team feel like they’re playing 13, 14 guys,”

It sounds great in theory, but the question remains: which of our guys fit where?

Most of the defensive front seems relatively set. Reese Donahue will be back for his senior season at defensive end while the Stills bros Darius and Dante will step in at the nose and other end, respectively. Depth is a concern here, as is tradition, but I actually feel really good about that first three - all three have been productive in a three-man front and appear to have the size and versatility to be just as successful in a four-man look.

That "fourth" spot is where it gets interesting, though. Koenning calls it the "Bandit", and it's something of an outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid. It's arguably the most important position in Koenning's scheme because the Bandit is the guy that will allow us the flexibility to fluidly pivot between three and four-man fronts and keep offenses guessing. Koenning described the position like this when he was hired at Illinois:

"He’s a mythical character. He’s the guy who goes around and steals the hopes and dreams of the opponents."

Whoever plays there needs to have the size and physicality to stand up to offensive lineman against the run, as well as the athleticism to stay with tight ends and running backs in space against the pass. Most of you have probably heard of DeMarcus Ware? He was Koenning’s first great Bandit during his first stint at Troy and can be thought of as something of a prototype for the position. Unfortunately we're not one of those programs that grows guys like that on trees, which leads me to believe that who we play there will likely be somewhat situation-dependent. If Koenning wants to go a little bigger, I'd expect for JUCO transfer Taihj Alston and Martinsburg native Tavis Lee to be among the leading candidates; if he wants to go a bit smaller, I'd think outside backers Quondarius Qualls, Charlie Benton, Exree Loe, Brendan Ferns, Josh Chandler, and Adam Hensley will all get their chance to stake a claim. At this point I'd probably tip one of that latter sixsome to win the job simply because Koenning seemed to prefer a smaller, more mobile Bandit during his time at Troy. However, if you'll grant me a quick thought experiment, don't sleep on Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan as a dark horse here.

Cowan is currently listed as a middle linebacker, but if we're looking for THE guy on our roster who fits that Bandit physical bill, isn't it him? The dude is 6'4 240, and to put it plainly, he's in a different class athletically than what we’re used to at that position. He IS one of those rare guys who, like DeMarcus Ware, has the physical pedigree to "go around and steal the hopes and dreams of the opponents", so if he's as good as advertised and we're looking for a place to feature him, Bandit makes as much sense as anything, especially considering the depth we should have at the other two linebacker spots. Let's just say it's something I'll be keeping an eye on.

Speaking of those other two linebackers, there's a variety of things that can happen. The Mike is likely going to depend on Dylan Tonkery's status. Tonk broke out two years ago as a freshman and seemed poised for stardom last year after moving to the middle, but unfortunately his season was cut short by injury early into our conference slate. If he's healthy, and I've heard nothing to suggest that he won't be, we've seen enough from him over the last two years to feel confident that he'll be first choice. If for some reason he's not, both Shea Campbell and Zach Sandwisch did a serviceable enough job stepping in for him last year that I don’t hate the idea of either of them being thrust into that starting role, provided that whoever we line up next to them has the legs to make up for any mobility that they might lack.

The other spot will probably depend on Cowan. I still think sticking him at the Bandit is a fun idea, but as I said he's a middle linebacker by trade and it's almost as much fun to think about him there. Simply put, if he has an even rudimentary understanding of what Koenning wants him to do (and he's not playing Bandit), then I expect him to win the other starting job alongside Tonk. If he doesn't (or he is playing Bandit), expect guys like the aforementioned Qualls, Benton, Loe, and Chandler to receive consideration.

The "Cat" and "Spear" are the other two hybrid positions that Koenning utilizes. The former seems to be a flexible strong safety while the latter will be more of a safety/linebacker hybrid, and like the Bandit, the versatility required by each make them two of the most demanding and important positions in Koenning's scheme. The good news here is that we appear to have several strong candidates for both spots.

5'9 dynamo Jovani Stewart has to be the favorite at the Cat. Stewart somehow found himself playing linebacker last year out of necessity but actually finished the season as one of our better defenders, proving beyond a doubt that he's one of those "contact seekers" that Koenning says he's looking for. After the way he played last year it's hard to imagine him not being on the field frequently. Aside from Stewart, former Pinto recruiting crush Kwantel Raines, Derrek Pitts, and Deamonte Lindsay should all be solid options. We may even see Josh Norwood get a chance here depending on how things shake out at corner.

Raines should get even more of a look at the Spear, where his prototypical size and athleticism should make him equally well-suited to playing in the box against the run and in the curl -> flat zone against the pass. I would expect Pitts to be in the mix here, as well, along with mobile linebackers Benton and Loe (who was recruited as a safety). As you can see, there are a lot of different ways that this might shake out, but all in all our linebackers, cats, and spears are an extremely deep and versatile bunch that should push each other for playing time and give Koenning plenty of choices to make over the next several months. That's the best kind of problem to have.

The third group isn't as deep as the second, but like the defensive line, I think the first unit has a chance to be really good. Kenny Robinson returns as the premier safety in the conference, and his combination of range, physicality, and ball skills make him as complete a package as we've had here at the free. Robinson's ability to make plays at all three levels should make him a foundational part of Koenning’s plans and allow him to get as creative as he wants with regards to presnap movements and formations.

Out wide, our corners don't have Robinson's ceiling but look like a strong bunch nonetheless. Both Keith Washington and Josh Norwood are now battle-hardened by a year in the Big 12 and should be better in year 2, while Hakeem Bailey is still around to provide depth, as well. The most intriguing member of the group, though, is 4-star JUCO transfer Dreshun Miller, who at rangy 6'2 175lbs definitely has the physical profile to be a high-level cornerback in the Big 12. Washington will likely remain a starter, and as the incumbent Norwood should have the first crack at locking down the other starting role, but I'd be lying if I said I'm not secretly hoping that Miller emerges as the guy opposite Washington by September. There's just something very attractive about the thought of having two 6'2 corners after the way we were abused in jump ball situations last year, plus it would free the borderline recklessly aggressive Norwood to throw his body around closer to the line of scrimmage. As I mentioned a few minutes ago, depth might be a slight concern should we fall victim to the injury bug, but if we're being honest, guys like Jake Long, Jordan Adams, and Sean Mahone have been in the program long enough at this point that they should be ready to contribute if called upon.

So that's that. As you can see it's early days yet with a lot still in flux, but after thinking through everything I can't help but feel like we're relatively well-positioned to do most of Koenning will want to do defensively. We have solid top-end talent along the defensive line and in the secondary and a ton of depth and versatility at most positions in between. Koenning will need to find himself a Bandit and possibly add another piece to bolster our depth up front, but all in all I figure he'll be pretty happy with what he has to work with this spring.