WVU football: Joseph emerges as bona fide star
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- As Karl Joseph has gradually - though dramatically - changed from the youngest player on West Virginia's defense to the best, we've been looking for an answer.
How has a freshman found a way to stack tackles and lead the team with 88? How he is holding up while playing almost every snap of every game?
How is it that he's gone from a virtual land mine who would blow people up when they came into his area to a missile that targets people with speed, destructiveness and occasional erraticism?
The answer was right in front of us and right behind Joseph's back. It's on the hooded sweatshirt he wears from his days as a high school wrestler.
Yes, the quiet kid from Florida's Edgewater High School, who's made a line of loud plays by corralling and slamming opponents this month, has a wrestling background.
"When football season was over, I wanted to try something different," Joseph said. "I had a couple good friends on the team who told me to come out, so I went out there and I was pretty good at it."
On the back of the sweatshirt is his last name, hand-written in marker across the shoulders. At the base of the back is a motto by which Joseph lives: "No fear."
"You can't have any fear, whether you're on the wrestling mat or on the football field," he said. "You can't fear anybody. You can't fear anything."
But what if you did? What would happen to a wrestler who was intimidated by an opponent? What chance does a defensive back stand if he's scared to sacrifice his body?
What if Joseph was just a little scared?
"I've never had that feeling," he said.
You tend to believe that, not because he chased that bright, familiar smile from his face like he might chase a quarterback to the sideline, but because tales from his teammates reinforce it.
"He a freshman, but he doesn't play like a freshman and he doesn't act like a freshman," junior safety Darwin Cook said. "He came in the spring with the mentality he was the best. You've got to come in with that mentality, but he's proving it."
The Mountaineers believe Joseph is the best freshman defender in the Big 12 and will beat out TCU's Devonte Fields for the award. Fields is a pass-rushing defensive end who leads the league in tackles for a loss and sacks, but who also has one sack and three tackles for a loss the past four games.
Joseph is peaking now, tackling running backs and receivers in the offensive backfield and defensive backfield, blitzing quarterbacks and breaking up passes. He's doing it at a position that rewards experience and challenges youth.
"What he does is stuff juniors and seniors will do," said senior linebacker Terence Garvin, who was a safety the previous three years. "He can read keys. He knows now to study film. He just really knows how to play football like an older person with experience. It's impressive."
Joseph arrived at WVU in January and started working out in the weight room with older players. There were other freshmen he could have hung around, but he went big.
When spring football came, he got to know linebacker Josh Francis in a rather unique way.
"Francis will wrestle anybody," Garvin said of the 6-foot, 1-inch, 220-pound Francis, who was toughened by growing up in Damascus, Md., and then playing junior college football for two years at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa. "He's a big, bad guy around here and if you wrestle Francis, you're most likely going to lose.
"Karl ended up winning, so people were like, 'Hold on, who's that?' "
Not everyone knew, so Joseph took it upon himself to make sure they knew his name and understood he wasn't scared of anything - except snakes, and he wouldn't dare tell anyone that.
During one spring practice, just as he was beginning to get his hands on some playing time, Joseph was with the defense that was going against an offense handing off to running back Shawne Alston.
Alston slipped through a gap before running into a pile of offensive and defensive players.
"I came to a stop," Alston said. "Karl kept going. He blew me up a little bit."
Alston knew better than to ever let up again.
"After that," he said, "I started running angry all the time."
Rock a 6-foot, 230-pound body like Alston a little bit and you can roll through a lot of other players. Joseph has done that from the beginning of the season all the way through this past game, though a toll has been taken on the still young 5-10, 195-pounder.
"During practices in the middle of the year, you could see him hit that wall and his body getting worn down," defensive coordinator and safeties coach Joe DeForest said. "When a guy like him hits as hard as he does when he hits other people, it hurts your body, too. Don't let anybody fool you. The opponent is not the only one getting punished."
True to form, though, Joseph hit the wall and exploded through it.
He had only four tackles against Oklahoma State. He followed with 10 against Oklahoma and a career-high 13 tackles, 12 on his own, last week against Iowa State.
After having no double-digit tackle games the first nine games, he'll go for three in a row Saturday at Mountaineer Field. WVU (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) plays Kansas (1-10, 0-9) at 2:30 p.m. (ROOT Sports).
DeForest said Joseph has played 98 percent of the defensive snaps this season and there are no discussions about changing that.
"You wind him up, send him out there and say, 'Go hit the guy with the ball. He's got it. Knock him down,' " DeForest said.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.