MORGANTOWN — We can say it’s early in the process for the WVU defense with nearly five months until the Mountaineers’ season-opener, against Tennessee, on Sept. 1, in Charlotte, N.C. But while it is too early on go into full-blown panic mode, it’s clear that the defense is struggling with depth issues during spring camp, which concludes this weekend.
And that’s the thing: We’re near the end of spring practice and there are still a ton of question marks at pivotal positions across the defense. A large portion of that skepticism has to do with who left since the Mountaineers took the practice field in late February.
This season was supposed to be the year where the WVU offense and defense avoided losing large chunks of their production due to graduation. Instead, quite a few important members of the 2017 “D” left the program and announced transfers.
The most important is nose tackle Lamonte McDougle, who announced last week that he wanted to continue his playing career elsewhere. The rising sophomore broke into the starting lineup as a true freshman and became an ESPN freshman all-American.
While he wasn’t participating in spring practice because of shoulder surgery, McDougle anchored a position that was already struggling with depth. Darius Stills is now the only other scholarship nose tackle on the team until help arrives this summer. Jalen Harvey, another nose, left the program in January, and Jaleel Fields left the team after graduating despite having eligibility left.
Some of that help will be USC graduate transfer Kenny Bigelow Jr., a 300-pound former 5-star nose tackle originally from Elkton, Md. He will have one year to play and, if he’s healthy, will certainly contribute in his one season at WVU.
But Bigelow rarely was healthy in his career with the Trojans, suffering two season-ending knee injuries. The Mountaineers’ coaches are taking a gamble but one they need to take.
As players across the country announce intent to play elsewhere, don’t be surprised if more defensive graduate transfers come aboard at WVU to help alleviate the pain.
Adam Shuler II, who started a majority of the games last season at defensive end, will transfer to another school to pursue track and field. While Ezekiel Rose is an obvious plug for that gap, the loss of Shuler continues to hurt depth along the defensive line.
Linebacker is in a different situation in that transfers aren’t the problem, but injuries are decimating a group that was already suffering from inexperience.
David Long, perhaps the best defender on the team, is out for the spring following shoulder surgery, but is expected to be back by the summer. Quondarius Qualls injured his ACL in practice and will be out a majority of this season.
Last week, Brendan Ferns, who was battling for the starting “Sam” linebacker spot, went down with an ACL tear, his third potential season-ending injury in three years. This is the second time he tore this ACL — he dislocated his shoulder last season.
That leaves Dylan Tonkery, who is playing a new position at “Mike,” as the only linebacker with any significant playing time in his career.
Let us not forget cornerback, which is replacing both starters for the third straight year.
There’s still time to make fixes and fill holes, but what looked to be a promising defensive unit is struggling to keep up. It’s not time to push the panic button, but I’d at least scroll across the dash to make sure you know where it is.