WVU football: Mountaineers build defensive depth
MORGANTOWN - It was Aug. 3 and defensive lineman Will Clarke had only practiced once with his West Virginia teammates in preseason camp. Yet on that second day and before the second practice, when he was asked to look ahead two weeks and guess how many players would be getting snaps on the line, he said, "Somewhere around 15."
The Mountaineers had used 15 players on the first day, and a few were freshmen ends, tackles and nose tackles, but also buck linebackers, which is a pass-rushing combination of end and outside linebacker.
"Seeing as if we'll be doing a lot of repetitions with a lot of guys, the younger guys will be able to imitate us and we'll be able to compliment and critique the younger guys," the 6-foot, 7-inch, 275-pound senior from Pittsburgh said. "That could be a good thing for us."
Speed ahead two weeks to when Coach Dana Holgorsen is presiding over his final press conference of camp. Two practices remained before the Mountaineers took a two-day break to get ready for the preseason practice that began Tuesday.
Holgorsen assessed Clarke's defensive line.
"We're still repping approximately 15 guys," Holgorsen said. "You just can't do that. We've got to narrow it down to guys we feel good about playing. The more you practice, the more you see guys separate themselves and in certain areas we're starting to see it."
A depth chart came out Monday and at the three defensive line positions, WVU showed just 24 career starts and 76 career games among nine players. Seven have never started a game, three have never played a game, one has played only a handful of snaps in four games and two were true freshmen listed as backups.
Add the three players at the buck position and it only increases career starts by one and career games by 27, but manages to incorporate a walk-on who has never played in college.
"Too many young guys," Holgorsen said. "You're talking about a few new freshmen, and we didn't have a whole lot of depth at that position anyway. We've got a whole lot of guys and not a lot of experience."
The Mountaineers don't have a lot of options, though. Clarke is listed as the defensive tackle and has 11 career starts. Jorge Wright is the defensive end with 13 starts. The only others to play double-digit career games are first-team buck linebacker Tyler Anderson (26), backup defensive tackle J.B. Lageman (11) and first-team nose tackle Shaq Rowell (10).
WVU, which can move Wright and Clarke around to address some situations, will instead lean heavily on the few veterans and trust that freshmen and other inexperienced players who have been on the roster for a year or more can add to the quantity and quality up front.
Included on the depth chart are true freshmen Christian Brown, a 6-3, 300-pound nose tackle, and Korey Harris, a 6-4, 240-pound end, and redshirt freshman Kyle Rose, a 6-4, 270-pound tackle. Trevor Demko, a 6-6, 260-pound end, played four games as a redshirt freshman last season.
"We're trying to figure out that next group of guys," Holgorsen said. "We've got a bunch of guys who haven't played and now you're mixing in freshmen guys who haven't played.
"We need probably about 12. I think we can carry 12, but if all 12 are playing, that means nobody has established themselves. That's still too many players."
Players like Rose, Demko and especially Lageman, a fifth-year senior from Huntington who earned a scholarship in the spring, have waited out the roster and worked for an opportunity that may have finally arrived. Brown, Harris and other freshmen, like nose tackle Imarjaye Albury and maybe end Eric Kinsey, could find a way to play in their first season, as daunting as that may be.
"It could be real difficult, especially for an 18-year-old kid playing in the Big 12," Lageman said. "That could be very tough, but then again, you see some of the guys coming on now and there are some pretty big 18-year-olds.
"But I think it's more of a mental thing than a physical thing. Being here five years now - four full seasons - all the springs, all the offseasons you do and all the seasons you go through, you just learn a lot from the older guys that have been around and the fight you need to have to mix it up with those other guys."
That would be the offensive linemen and they admit they like the prospect of taking on true freshman.
"Your eyes do light up knowing they have that high school mentality and they don't know how to play at this level or how fast the game is," center Joe Madsen said. "You know you get to mess with their heads a little."
The coaches don't view age as a restriction and true freshmen are projected to start at inside receiver and field safety while backups can be found at four other positions on defense beyond Brown and Harris.
Defensive line coach Erik Slaughter said he's "all about winning" and believes his freshmen are physically prepared, thanks to either enrolling in January and going through the spring, like Albury, or enrolling in June and making the most of access to the weight room. Slaughter used the preseason camp to make sure players were mentally prepared, and his veterans feel secure moving forward.
"Honestly, all those young guys who have played have made progress," Wright said. "I really think as far as playing young linemen, it's good because the number of plays we're going to see now.
"Any time you have guys to help with depth, no matter the position, it helps to have it because you're always going to have fresh guys. The freshmen we have are hungry to play and they're not scared or timid at all."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.