Lageman has come a long way for WVU
MORGANTOWN - An impressive Orange Bowl victory made for a happy new year for West Virginia's football program. For one player, the thumping of Clemson wasn't the biggest triumph in January.
When the Mountaineers returned after the victory, J.B. Lageman received an e-mail from Alex Hammond, WVU's director of football operations.
"He told me I was going on scholarship," Lageman said after Tuesday's 10th practice of the Mountaineers' spring drills. "I'm on now. It helps a lot with finances."
If that's an understatement - and it is - the decision also helps the fourth-year defensive lineman and erstwhile walk-on from Huntington feel like his long time in the WVU program was worth it as he rolls toward a redshirt senior season in the fall.
"Yeah, I mean there were times in my career, to be honest, where I didn't see any light at the end of the tunnel," said Lageman, who has played only in 11 career games, eight of those last season. "It was tough taking my blows, keep coming back and being a scout team guy, kind of being a tackling dummy every day.
"But now it's really paying off huge, the possibility of maybe being a starter or at least a mainstay player. It's a huge accomplishment for me."
When a revised depth chart was issued Tuesday by Coach Dana Holgorsen's program, Lageman had slipped from a starter to No. 2 at defensive tackle - one of five Mountain State natives in the offense and defense two-deep - with Will Clarke shifting from end to the top tackle spot.
However, in drills Tuesday, Lageman was with the ones, at tackle. The 6-foot-3, 272-pounder also plays plenty at nose guard, where incumbent starter Jorge Wright returns.
In other words, the front in a WVU defense changing from a 3-3-5 stack to a morphing 3-4/4-3 will be about rotating within a rotation. Lageman was a tackle, usually third in line last season, in former line coach Bill Kirelawich's front.
"My position in the old defense was pretty much just tackle," Lageman said. "This one, I'm more a tackle, or into a 3-technique on a guard, or I'm a shade nose a lot of the time.
"Basically now we have one-gap responsibility, and the responsibility is to penetrate, get vertical and cause problems in the backfield and get people to play a lot faster. The transition's been fun, a little bit different, but we're getting used to it.
"I think (the revolving personnel) is huge. All we hear is how vital it's going to be able to get to the quarterback. Obviously we have to stop the run, but our big thing is going to be getting to the quarterback, getting guys on the ground. If you play 80 plays a game, you're going to be dead and you can't get to him."
There is another noticeable difference for Lageman, Wright and Clarke, the veterans among the WVU defensive front. Kirelawich and his barking, often blue - and gold in what he was teaching - language is gone to Rich Rodriguez's staff at Arizona. In steps new line coach Erik Slaughter.
"I had Kirlav for four years, a great man, a great coach," Lageman said. "He instilled so much in technique, just his thoughts on the game. Him moving on and Coach Slaughter coming in, he brings a new dynamic.
"It's not necessarily better, it's just different. That's exactly how it is, different. You just move on. We're going to keep on playing hard, how we've always been taught to do.
"Defensive line play is still getting in there and getting nasty with the other big boys. It's just a different technique, one- instead of two-gap, and instead of letting the linebackers make the plays, get in there and cause problems."
Kirelawich noticed Lageman when the Huntington High standout attended camp at WVU. That was prior to Rodriguez's final season at WVU, but when he left, Kirelawich and coordinator Jeff Casteel stayed in Morgantown and Kirelawich kept after Lageman.
"I looked at a couple of (West Virginia Conference) schools, but I decided to try and walk on, figured I could put in a couple years and drop down," Lageman said. "But things have come into play that really helped, and here I am talking about being on scholarship with you guys."
Lageman said then-Coach Mark Snyder's program at hometown Marshall "recruited me, invited me to walk on, but I wasn't going to stay in Huntington for any less than a scholarship. We just didn't see eye-to-eye on that, and I respect their decision, but I decided to come up the road and it was a better decision for me."
Lageman said Slaughter is mixing and matching because in game situations, sometimes a player won't stay on the field for more than three or four plays in a row. After waiting so long to have a chance to play, the former two-time Class AAA All-State selection isn't picky.
"I like nose, even though I'm a little less than the required weight," Lageman said, "but I like getting in there and mixing it up with centers and guards. Sometimes I like transitioning out to tackle and playing the guards and tackles more.
"Different jobs, certain play calls, but each guy gets to have his fun, depending on the blitz or the front. It doesn't matter to me, as long as I'm on the field playing."
Lageman said that when most of his teammates heard he had been awarded a scholarship, they were surprised ... but only because many of them assumed he already was a grant-in-aid player.
He said while teammates don't look at him differently, he sees a different guy in the mirror now.
"It makes you feel good that people noticed, because you wonder about that," Lageman said. "For me, it's still just work hard, keep on grinding every day.
"Every day, when I went out, I was always trying to get better, get to be put in game, because I always felt like that was where I could 'make my money.' When I'd get in a game and make a tackle or two, I felt like that was making progress toward getting that scholarship. Obviously now, after the bowl game, I played some last year, about 50-60 plays.
"Some things just didn't work out (earlier) and some things did. Finally, I guess it all fell into place. It's happened the way it's supposed to happen, and I'm just glad either way, it's happened sooner than later."
Contact Sports Editor Jack Bogaczyk at email@example.com or 304-348-7949.