Football, Sports, WVU Sports

WVU going back to the basics to try and fix defensive woes

MORGANTOWN — In an overall disappointing 2022 season for WVU football, the biggest letdown of the year undoubtedly came from the Mountaineers’ defense.

A unit that was hit hard by transfers and injuries regressed badly from solid seasons in 2020 and 2021 to end up as one of the worst defenses in the Big 12 last year.

“That’s the biggest thing, at least right now, being good at football,” WVU defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said after the team’s first spring practice on Tuesday. “Back to how we’ve always been, that’s as simple as my message is this spring.”

The Mountaineers posted great defensive numbers in 2020, allowing just 20.5 points and 291.4 yards per game, and carried that into 2021, allowing 23.8 points and 350.1 yards. The defense bottomed out in 2022, however, finishing second-last in the Big 12 allowing 32.9 points per game and in the bottom half in yardage, allowing 412.3.

It was the first time under head coach Neal Brown that WVU had allowed more than 30 points or 400 yards of offense per game.

“On defense, it’s really about getting back to basics,” Brown said Monday. “We did not play up to our standards last year and we’ve simplified from a schematics standpoint. Early on, alignment and communication are going to be the focal point on that side of the ball.”

According to Lesley, the downfall of WVU’s defense last season came from trying too hard to cover up the team’s weak points and creating more weak points in the process.

“I take the blame for this, you start trying to plug holes,” Lesley said. “The intent is always good, but a lot of times you create issues when you’re trying to do that. Some things happened that we didn’t expect and some guys didn’t play the way we thought they would play. So you start trying to adjust to that, start trying to plug too many holes and you create other holes.

“When you start trying to plug holes, you get too many and you create more issues than what you started with. The intent is good, but if you just stick to what you are and what you can be, you’ll probably be just as good with the holes that you have.”

In response, WVU is going simple this season. The hope is that having a renewed focus on fundamentals and technique this spring will pay dividends in the fall.

“Just getting back to basic, fundamentally sound football,” Lesley said. “We probably should have taken that approach last year with how we were built, but we didn’t.”

WVU’s defense will look very similar to last season personnel-wise. That includes mike linebacker Lee Kpogba, who is entering his second season in Morgantown after transferring from junior college.

“This year I’m definitely more comfortable. I feel like I know more about the defense,” Kpogba, the team’s leading tackler, said Wednesday. “If we just focus on our fundamentals and technique, it’ll help us align faster when we’re playing other teams…everything just falls in place once your fundamentals are good.”

Kpogba said he has naturally taken on more of a leadership role this offseason. Both naturally because of his personality and because of the graduation of former defensive lineman Dante Stills. Kpogba said he is fully on board with playing simplified football this season.

“That just means focusing on fundamentals and just worrying about us and what we do,” the senior said. “Starting with the little things whether it’s footwork, alignment and assignment, just doing the little things right.”

Following a down season in 2022, some might be surprised that there were no changes to WVU’s defensive coaching staff over the offseason. In January, Brown said he still has full confidence in the group’s ability to coach and get the defense back on the right track.

“That’s good to hear, but we’ve got to fix it,” Lesley said. “It obviously makes it easier to fix, knowing that he does (have confidence in us), but I knew that before.”

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