Everybody remembers the scintillating offense that led the West Virginia University Mountaineers to their undefeated season in 1988. But when the Mountaineers replicated that feat again in 1993, it was the defense that carried the load. With a first-year starter at quarterback, can the 2010 Mountaineer defense answer the call and put West Virginia back in the BCS?
Defensive Line: There are plenty of big boys up front to stuff the run and occupy a whole lot of space in defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5. Senior Chris Neild is one of the Mountaineers' best at any position, and he'll be called upon to lay the foundation for the entire defense. I expect he'll be up to the task. Experience won't be lacking on the front line, either, as Julian Miller and Scooter Berry are battle-tested in the trenches and will swallow runners whole. New to the mix is junior college transfer Bruce Irvin, a dynamic, athletic pass rusher who some pundits are comparing to Giants first round pick Jason Pierre-Paul. Casteel's defensive set doesn't usually serve up a whole lot of sacks, but this could be the year all that changes.
Linebackers: The defense as a whole is experienced, and no unit is more experienced than the linebacking corps. The Mountaineers start three seniors in linebacker in J.T. Thomas, Pat Lazear and Anthony Leonard. Thomas is the most exciting of the bunch and, as a third-year starter, will be called on to be a vocal leader on the field. Lazear and Leonard excel in making the right play, at the right time. You can be sure that when one of them are called upon, whether to cover, rush the passer or close a gap, they'll be right where they need to be. Throw experienced back-up Najee Good into the mix and the Mountaineer linebacking corps has speed, power and depth. Just how I like it.
Secondary: The back five have been the most frustrating part of Casteel's scheme through the years. However, this year the Mountaineers will have more skill in the secondary than ever before, so expect this unit to make great strides. Senior cornerback Brandon Hogan will be called on to be a steady hand in coverage, but consistency has escaped him in years past. If that can be remedied, he and Keith Tandy will anchor a stingy pass defense on the corners. The Mountaineer safeties will be called on to hit some people, and hit they will. Freak of nature Robert Sands could be the defense's biggest star by season's end if he throws around his 6-5/225 frame like he's wont to do. Add another physical presence in 6-3 sophomore Terrance Garvin and the experience of senior Sidney Glover, and the safeties' names will be called on the loudspeakers early and often. No other unit on the Mountaineer defense features the blend of speed and power that secondary has. This just might be the year people stop trying to throw on the Mountaineers.
FINAL PREDICTION: The WVU defense is stacked. There's a whole lot of experience, depth and talent. Casteel has taken a lot of heat for his 3-3-5 scheme, but this year, he'll have more talent at his disposal than he's ever had at West Virginia. The defense won't to carry the entire load, even with a first-year quarterback, but I do expect this year's D to be 'Eers best unit. Though recent history positions the Mountaineers as an offensive football team with a defense that is constant liability, this is the year that all that changes.