MORGANTOWN — If not for bad luck and a bad knee befalling Quondarius Qualls, this week and this perhaps this season might have signaled an easing-in for West Virginia linebacker Charlie Benton.
Instead, Benton has understood since March — since Qualls tore an ACL during spring practice — that he must expedite his readiness. The newcomer from Butler (Kan.) Community College) is slated to start at the Sam spot Saturday when the No. 17 Mountaineers face Tennessee.
An encouraging preseason reinforced the coaches’ confidence in Benton.
“He loves to play football,” said defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “He’ll lay his hat on you.”
In the juco ranks last season, Benton led Butler with 69 tackles while playing a hybrid-safety position. He didn’t blitz much, recording two sacks in 11 games, which could change under Gibson’s pressure-heavy 3-3-5. Benton had a pick-six and figures to be WVU’s most fluid coverage linebacker.
That athleticism and a long-armed 6-foot-2 frame could narrow throwing lanes.
“We haven’t had many with length like that who can run like him,” Gibson said. “He can run with tight ends.”
All-Big 12 candidate David Long, the TFL machine who mans the opposite outside linebacker at Will, got accustomed to playing next to another Benton the last two seasons, Al-Rasheed. Now, Long is helping mentor a player with no FBS experience.
“It’s all about making mistakes because Charlie’s young, but he’s learning to correct them and make the right reads,” Long said. “He’s getting there.”
Long represents a good-and-bad role model. His almost-legendary intensity during lifting sessions and practices sets a high standard for newcomers, and he drags them into the film room. But on the field his high-risk freelancing on gap-shooting is hard to emulate.
“David Long’s great for our defense, but he’s the worst thing that happens for the rest of these linebackers,” Gibson joked. “Because they watch what he does and they try to be like him, and they can’t do the things he’s doing.”
Since arriving from junior college in January, Benton has added 15 pounds to reach 220. That gives the redshirt sophomore more mass to cope with tight ends, offensive tackles and fullbacks.
The most optimistic timetable for Qualls’ return is early November, and there’s a shortage of backup linebackers, leaving Benton in a make-or-break spot. So far, his practice performance bodes well for when the snaps truly count.
“You don’t know about Charlie when they just have helmets and shorts on and you’re not hitting. Charlie shows up when you put full gear on him,” Gibson said. “I like that. Usually it’s the other way around.
“In camp I wanted to see him make plays and play physical and he’s shown me he could do that. I wanted to see him when he gets tired and it gets hard, and I wanted to see him react. And I like what I’ve seen.”
Follow Allan Taylor on Twitter @GAllanTaylor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org