Mountaineer Nation has been lucky to bear witness to some fantastic linebacking over the years. When I was growing up it was guys like Canute Curtis, Barrett Green, Gary Stills, and Grant Wiley. My college years featured guys like Boo McLee, Reed Williams, JT Thomas, and Najee Goode, and more recently we've gotten great play out of guys like Nick Kwiatkowski, Al Benton, Kyzir White, David Long, and Tony Fields. However, with the way offenses are looking to spread you out these days, linebackers have been forced to evolve. Knowing where you need to be and making the play once you get there aren't always enough anymore, because getting to those spots has never been more difficult.
That last bit was our linebackers' biggest problem a year ago - getting to the spots where they needed to be. And to simplify it even further - speed. They were a step off the pace. It didn't always hurt us, which is a testament to their ability to check those first two boxes, but there were also running and throwing lanes that should've been closed down but weren't, which resulted in some seemingly routine plays that turned into disasters.
The good news here is that it shouldn't be an issue this year. This year's group has a different vibe about it. Lee Kpogba, Lance Dixon, Exree Loe, Tirek Austin-Cave, Jacorey Hammet - every single one of them can run and play in space. We obviously need to see it translate to the field this fall, but on paper they're truly our first group in this modern era that is built top to bottom for the modern era. We'll dive into the rest of the rotation sometime later this summer, but for now I want to focus on expectations for our presumed starters.
The aforementioned Kpogba should be our new anchor in the middle, and I can hardly recall being more excited about a dude who's never played a down for us. When Kpogba originally committed to us out of high school he reminded me of a 6'1 Karl Joseph, which is fitting considering he's cited Joseph as an inspiration and is donning his #8 shirt this year. Simply put, when he hits you, you stay hit. According to PFF, Kpogba posted an elite 89.7 tackle grade as a rotation player at Syracuse in 2020 (13th nationally among all defenders with more than 150 defensive snaps), then followed that up last year by leading the #1 scoring defense in JUCO with 84 tackles in 10 games (8.4 per game ranked 18th nationally in JUCO). This is a guy with the athleticism to play sideline-to-sideline in the same way that Tony Fields did two years ago, and when you couple that with the stories trickling out of spring camp about the kind of intensity he brings both on and off the field, you can't help but think the sky's the limit for him. I see no reason why he can't follow in Fields' footsteps and be in the mix for the Defensive Newcomer of the Year in the Big 12.
Partnering Kpogba will be Lance Dixon, a former 4-star recruit now in his second year in Morgantown after transferring from Penn State. Dixon was a bit inconsistent for most of last season while splitting time with Exree Loe, but he turned in an outstanding performance in the bowl game against Minnesota with Loe out injured. According to PFF, his 65.4 season grade is actually the highest of any returning linebacker in the conference who played at least 150 snaps last year (more on this surprising fact in a second), and the hope will be that he can build on that bowl game performance and hit that level more consistently this year.
So what's the ceiling for these two in 2022? How about best tandem in the Big 12? Scoff if you want, but take a quick look around the league while you do. The established linebacker hierarchy has moved on. Gone are Oklahoma State's Malcolm Rodriguez and Devin Harper, who've carried the league banner at the position for the last two years. Gone too are Iowa State's Mike Rose and Jake Hummel, Oklahoma's Nic Bonitto and Brian Asamoah, Baylor's Terrell Bernard, and Texas Tech's Rico Jeffers and Colin Schooler. Every single one of those guys were multiyear starters who received an All-Conference nod last year, and between them they accounted for every single spot on the Big 12's first and second team defense. All of them are gone. I'm sure all of those teams have capable lads waiting in the wings, but fact of the matter is that the title of best in class hasn't been this available since Neal Brown arrived in Morgantown. So what's stopping Kpogba and Dixon from staking their claim?