WVU football: D-line is still hardest spot to recruit
MORGANTOWN - The rude reality of college football is that it's governed in part by a prickly paradox. Defensive line is the most difficult position to recruit, but defensive line play is most critical to a team's success. A defense can ruin an offense's best designs by invading the backfield and deconstructing blocking schemes with just three or four players up front.
They can do it themselves, or they can make life wonderfully easier on the players behind them.
That said, the competition among so many schools for so few impact kids makes it extraordinarily difficult to get those players in a dormitory at your favorite school.
This is not news at West Virginia, which has had a few players grow into very good and sometimes professional quality defensive linemen in the past several years, but really hasn't been especially skilled at recruiting big-time talent there.
With the new defense in place for 2012 and new coaches on hand to teach it, there remains that constant concern: Can WVU recruit the defensive line?
Erik Slaughter, the firstyear defensive line coach who spent the previous three years at Stephen F. Austin and last year helped the Lumberjacks lead the nation with 4.36 sacks per game, will scour his recruiting region. He'll comb the football fields in Orlando and the west coast of Florida, but also allow the Mountaineers to think nationally.
Truth be told, though, the future of the line may already be on campus.
A year ago, Kyle Rose was a 230-pound freshman defensive end who redshirted and then put on the freshman 15 for himself and two others.
Today, he's a 6-foot-4 inch, 275-pound defensive tackle.
He is the new visage of WVU defensive linemen, if not in person, then in profile.
"It's hard to find really good defensive linemen who are ready to play as young guys," Slaughter said. "What I always try to do is get guys with height and the ability to run.
"What I know about college life is a guy is always going to get bigger. He's going to grow up and be heavier. He's not going to get taller or faster most of the time. I want as many fast, tall guys as I can get."
A few schools can find the few recruits who are physically and mentally prepared to play in the torturous trenches.
Those are the gems of any recruiting class, and the precious stones belong to a precious few schools.
WVU is a lot of things, but it is not LSU or Alabama or anyone else among the recruiting royalty that makes that particular hard task look so easy.
Slaughter gets that.
"Those schools get the guys who are ready-made," he said. "The rest are either big enough and can't move well enough or move well enough but aren't big enough to play.
I want guys who are tall enough to grow to where they can handle themselves. If you get a 6-foot guy who can move, how much bigger is he going to get? If you get a 6-5 guy who can move, he can put weight on."
The tall and quick players far outnumber the blue-chip prospects. They don't always make an immediate impact.
They usually require a little bit of time to find the proper position and reach the full potential.
"But they're everywhere," Slaughter said.
So he anticipates a player's development. He finds the kid with the nice frame and the good feet, the one with the long arms and the lateral quickness. Maybe he plays defensive end for a year or two at 240 or 250 pounds. All the while, he's lifting weights about as often as he eats.
"How good is that kid going to be as a tackle when he's 290 pounds and still runs well?" Slaughter said. "Now you've got an athletic guy who runs well and got big enough to play. That's different than a guy who's not athletic, but already was big enough to play."
The Mountaineers have done this through the years and Chris Neild and Julian Miller blossomed after they built themselves into different beings than they were as freshmen.
Neild started with a tight end's body, but made it to the NFL as a nose guard who sacked Vince Young in a preseason game last week. Julian Miller added 50 pounds of mostly muscle at WVU and transitioned seamlessly from defensive end to defensive tackle on the other end of the line.
What will change is how WVU recruits pass rushers.
That role will evolve to involve ends, linebackers and even safeties and Slaughter will sign off on the ends and linebacker types who will put their hand to the ground on the line of scrimmage.
Slaughter didn't recruit any of the players in the 2012 recruiting class because he arrived after signing day, yet who he inherited falls in place for this year and the future.
The 6-3, 300-pound Christian Brown seems likely to play, even though he only arrived over the summer, and 5-11, 290-pound Imarjaye Albury may go, too, having made the most of his January enrollment and spring audition. Korey Harris (6-4, 240), Garrett Hope (6-3, 245), Eric Kinsey (6-2, 250) and Noble Nwachukwu (6-2, 250) could play as freshmen and grow into another position in the future, as desired.
There is a misconception attached to all of this, though.
WVU still wants players who are good enough to play right away. It's the difference between a making a projection and recruiting a project. Given what the Mountaineers lost to graduation and what little they return in terms of experience, there may not be much time for projects.
"I'll take a guy who can play quickly at one position and help us right away, but might grow up and play another position," Slaughter said.
"Instead of taking a nose guard who is maybe ready to play nose early, I'll take the guy who's 260 pounds and can move and play tackle. Then he grows into a 300-pounder who's going to have some advantages inside. I know if they're tall, they're going to get heavier. I want to make sure they're able to move."