Mountaineer Gameday: Rowell is confident, has better grasp on defense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- As best as the world knows, Will Clarke may or may not play defensive end for West Virginia on Saturday night against Kansas State.
The senior from Pittsburgh was a surprising scratch last weekend at Texas Tech and was spared the indignity of saying he was anything more than a witness to the team's worst loss since 2001 - when Coach Dana Holgorsen was in his second season as a Red Raiders assistant coach.
Clarke was replaced by a trilogy of freshmen: redshirt freshman Kyle Rose and true freshmen Korey Harris and Eric Kinsey, who started.
They did not fulfill his presence or his production.
"They don't know how to play hard yet," Holgorsen said. "They're trying and slowly coming along, but they are not ready to be difference-makers."
The three might have the same role again at 7 p.m. Saturday (WVAH) against the fourth-ranked Wildcats (6-0, 3-0 Big 12). Or maybe one or two might see their responsibilities expand at the expense of one or two of the others as No. 17 WVU (5-1, 2-1) tries to erase the last of the Big 12's unbeatens and retain some semblance of control in the conference championship race.
Clarke might sit again or he might be limited and it's unlikely that Rose, Harris or Kinsey magically turn into a player much older and wiser - a gradual process at that position and age.
"They need to listen as far as what we're coaching them to do," Holgorsen said. "They're all good kids, but we're not interested in putting just good kids out there. We're interested in putting nasty guys that get after people's tails and make plays and are disruptive."
Players like Shaq Rowell (pronounced like Powell), the Mountaineers' mountainous nose guard who went through the freshman fits last season as a junior college transfer. He has since asked questions, listened to answers, digested coaching and become a noticeable figure on the defensive line. Rowell will have to play a lot and play well if WVU's run defense is to stop the Wildcats.
The Mountaineers are No. 43 in rushing defense (131.3 yards per game) despite five 20-yard runs - and 53- and 49-yard jaunts among them - allowed this season. Kansas State is No. 11 in rushing offense (248.5) and follows running back John Hubert (101) and quarterback Collin Klein (85) toward much of their yardage. The Wildcats have 13 of those 20-yard runs this year.
"We haven't allowed one player playing us to reach 100 yards individually yet," said the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Rowell. "We're going to keep doing that. That's going to be our attitude from here on out."
Rowell packs the attitude. Want to see a nasty and disruptive player for the Mountaineers? Send Rowell word that he needs to trot off the field and catch his breath on the sideline.
"He never wants to come out," defensive line coach Erik Slaughter said. "Never. Every time I try to take him out, he argues with me to stay in."
That's where Rowell is this season, his second of the three he can spend with the Mountaineers after playing just one season at Iowa Western Community College. This is a far place from where he was last season, when he played fewer than 100 snaps across 10 games.
He passed that in two games this season and already has a very nose guardish 18 tackles - or 10 more than he had all of last season.
Slaughter is Rowell's fourth position coach in as many seasons, beginning with his defensive line coach at Ohio's famed Glenville High, where he starred and signed to play at Ohio State before realizing he would need better grades.
Then it was a year at Iowa Western, where he had different coach and 32 tackles, eight tackles for a loss and two sacks as member of the national semifinalist. Last year he was learning from Bill Kirelawich while practicing against Holgorsen's offense as Holgorsen hurried to establish his pace and his personality.
Rowell admits he couldn't keep up in practice and said he didn't even know the hand signals. He'd have to turn around and ask middle linebacker Najee Good what the play was. Once he knew that, he had a better idea what to do, but not like he does now.
"I feel like when I'm playing the game, it's slowed down for me and now I'm reading the ball and I can tell if they're going to run it," he said. "If they're going to run it, I'm going to stop it regardless. I don't care who's in the backfield. The game has just slowed down to me to where I feel like I can be more aggressive now. I know all the plays and I can attack my gap and attack my opponent."
Slaughter arrived from Stephen F. Austin in the offseason and right away Rowell knew he would again have to get to know a new coach and a system and the changes that come with them. They got together and Rowell made a request.
"I learned how to play by asking, 'How can you make this so simple that I can understand it quickly?' " Rowell said. "The defense here is so simple that - I can't tell you what happens, but when I'm playing, it feels just so much easier."
He is no longer burdened by what he does not know. When he's looking around the field now, it's not to ask what the play is, but usually to lock eyes with someone on the sideline and spin his hands in a circle to celebrate a play. That happens quite a bit and is the manifestation of confidence he did not have and cannot contain now.
"I wouldn't say I'm the best," he said, "but my goal is to be the best."
Slaughter said Rowell's mentality has come "a million miles" and that he's tougher and more durable because he believes he's tough and durable.
"I don't mind playing 60 snaps," Rowell said.
One thing to say it, quite another to do it, but Rowell says it because he believe he can do it.
"I don't think it's that he wasn't tough before, but I just don't know how much confidence he had," Slaughter said. "I think his confidence has grown a lot and as a player that makes him much more confident in his attitude and the way he approaches every practice and every game.
"He's got a great feel for what we're doing now and what we want him to be doing and it's made him much more aggressive."