WVU football: Inside linebacker good fit for Kwiatkoski
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - There is a bandage covering a cut on the inside of his right forearm and a black bruise beneath his right thumbnail. Scrapes decorate his neck like Rand McNally and four quarters of head banging football have left red imprints from where his helmet pressed against his forehead.
All of this is visible after the audible expressions of Nick Kwiatkoski flopping into a chair to discuss West Virginia's 41-7 win against Georgia State Saturday.
"That's definitely part of playing inside," the middle linebacker said. "You get hit a lot. You get hit on a majority of the plays, especially the run plays when they're trying to take you out. It takes a toll on you. Usually, you don't feel it until after the game."
Entering Saturday's 3:30 p.m. ESPNU game against Maryland (3-0) at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, the sophomore from Bethel Park, Pa., leads the Mountaineers (2-1) in tackles and has led the team in each game.
Those were the first three starts of his career.
Kwiatkoski (kwit-COW-skee) is tied for No. 51 nationally and No. 4 in the Big 12 with nine tackles per game.
Against the Panthers, Kwiatkoski had his first career sack and forced a fumble that led to a WVU touchdown and a 34-7 lead.
"It's his confidence," defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Keith Patterson said. "He understands the system. When you play with confidence, you play fast. Last year, he didn't have the reps to go out there and feel 100 percent confident. This year, he does."
Last year, Kwiatkoski was new to the position. He played receiver and safety in high school for West Virginia native Brad Metheny, and when he committed in July 2010, he seemed like a smart fit as a big safety in then-coordinator Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5.
Kwiatkoski, who was 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds on signing day in 2011, played in 12 games last season and was a backup Sam linebacker. Patterson, who was the co-coordinator last season and was put in charge in December, moved Kwiatkoski to the middle in the spring.
What Kwiatkoski knew about safety and didn't know about middle linebacker has helped tidy the transition.
"You focus more inside than outside, but when you're a safety, you've got to watch it all," Kwiatkoski said. "Changing the defense this year, a lot of people played the (3-3-5) stack and there are some small things and different tendencies that they were used to doing. I never played the stack.
"Now (Patterson) wants us to be more patient. Some of the old linebackers like to get downhill fast. I was never in there, so I don't try to get downhill."
It's not that Kwiatkoski can't get downhill. He can, witnessed by his sack when he raced through the middle of the line and chased the quarterback a step to his right before making the play.
That was a rarity, though. Isaiah Bruce, Doug Rigg and Jared Barber, who were the middle linebackers last season, combined for 21/2 sacks in 2012. The pressure typically came from outside linebackers Terence Garvin and Josh Francis.
Patterson experimented on the Kwiatkoski sack and sent him up the middle and freshman Daryl Worley from his cornerback position on the same play, a sure sign that Patterson is learning more about what Kwiatkoski and others can handle.
"He's one of those guys who does everything you ask him to do, and he doesn't deviate from it," Patterson said. "I've been very pleased with his approach every single day. What you see from him on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday is what you are going to see on Saturday."
The biggest thing Patterson wants from Kwiatkoski and the other linebackers is to see them stay in the play and then make the play. Patterson preaches patience and wants his linebackers to read and react. Too often last year, the linebackers acted quickly and were taken out of plays.
In the fourth quarter against the Panthers, Kwiatkoski read a running play and shuffled to his left instead of running forward. He found the running back's alley and met him at the line of scrimmage.
"I think I got my head on the ball," he said.
The running back was dazed and the forced fumble preceded Ford Childress' third and final touchdown pass of the game.
"He brings an understanding of the game, which for a linebacker is very important because you have to be able to sort things out mentally and you have to be able to react to things, trust what you see and get after it," Coach Dana Holgorsen said.
There's a physical part, too, and it was on display on Kwiatkoski's first career forced fumble. He rumbled to the hole at 235 pounds, the product of determined weight lifting, calculated nutrition and a few late-night milkshakes.
The weight, about 10 pounds more than he carried last season, is enough to let him float around as a Sam linebacker in some situations and thump opponents in others, but it's also what he needs to absorb the contact that accumulates rapidly in the middle.
"I feel good where I'm at right now," he said. "What I feel are mostly bumps and bruises, but it's typical game soreness. I just need to keep eating what I eat and get good lifts in and I'll be fine."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1141. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.