MORGANTOWN — Better.
That’s about all you can conclude about West Virginia’s defensive unit after Saturday’s spring game.
Dallas’ Doomsday Defense it isn’t, nor is it Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters.
But it also isn’t the worst West Virginia defense ever to set foot on Mountaineer Field, which is what last year’s unit was, so that’s a step forward.
Keith Millard was quarterbacking behind Geno Smith last year, so he practiced against the defensive unit and got to see it on a daily basis last season as it gave up 39.5 points and 502 yards a game.
“I think the defense has made tons of improvement in the off-season,” he said after the defense won the spring game on a modified scoring system, 41-33. “It took us a while to get going and score a touchdown, four or five drives. It wasn’t real pretty.”
True, they didn’t pitch a shutout, but there were some good things, things like Travis Bell looking like he might be able to play cornerback after being moved there from safety just two days earlier and things like six sacks.
That did not go unnoticed.
It is what has been stressed by Keith Patterson, who has taken over from Joe DeForest, as defensive coordinator.
“I think last year, if the pressure didn’t come from Josh or Terence, it didn’t get there,” Patterson said, referring to pass rushers Josh Francis and Terence Garvin, each now gone.
The stats backed that up. Last year, there were 22 sacks. Those two players accounted for 10.5 of them; only one other player finished with as many as 2.
That was something that they wanted to correct, to spread things out.
“The nature of our scheme is making us more well-rounded, if that’s the right word.” Patterson said. “There’s times now we’ll just run the linebacker through the A-gap and drop the two outside guys, and the quarterback is running for his life. Last year, if the pressure didn’t come from the field, we didn’t get any pressure.”
The pass rush was always coming from the outside backers, which made defending against it far easier.
“Now, because of the unorthodox nature of our fronts, any one of those guys can pressure. Now the two inside guys can pressure,” Patterson said, explaining his 3-4 was lining up differently than did last year’s to create angles and blocking dilemmas for the offense. “Now, at times, there’s seven guys who can come, and they have to figure out who it will be.”
The idea is to have a lot of players who can make an impact in the pass rush.
“Who’s the guy who can make a big tackle? Who can impact the quarterback? It might not even be a quarterback sack. It might just be getting in the quarterback’s face or making a throw come up short. Who can make him throw the ball away?” Patterson said.
“Those are the things that don’t show up. So far this spring, it’s been a different guy every day, and that’s what I love about our defense. It’s not just one guy. If this one guy doesn’t pressure the quarterback, if this one guy has a bad day, it’s not going to affect our performance.”
Team defense is being emphasized.
“The spring has been team,” Patterson said. “We’ve talked a lot about who cares? One game Darwin Cook might have a great game. The next game might be Karl Joseph. The next game Will Clarke. Who cares? The object is to give our offense as many chances as possible.”
Six sacks had offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson upset with his quarterbacks.
“We’re overthinking things as far as checks, and you have to have a clock in your head at quarterback. We’re giving up sacks at quarterback that we shouldn’t give up. Our sense of urgency has to increase,” Dawson said. “To give up sacks sitting in the pocket four seconds, three seconds, five seconds — you can’t do that. If that’s what they are going to do, neither one of them can play. You have to have an internal clock in your head. You have to speed up your body and get rid of the ball.”
“Taking sacks gets you beat,” Dawson continued. “OK, a couple they blitzed and stuff is going to happen. But rushing four and throwing the ball down the field with four to five people in the route and giving up a sack four or five seconds after the ball is snapped? That will get you beat up.”
But you have to give credit to the defense, a defense that is only beginning to get its legs and that may be far better by the time conference play arrives because there are additions expected to make a difference in the summer.
“Sometimes someone comes completely out of the blue and it’s ‘Wow! I never expected it from that young man,’” Patterson said. “Hopefully we’re not relying on too many freshmen, but the junior college players we are bringing in have a chance to come in and make a tremendous impact. D’Vante Henry and Brandon Golson, those are the guys right there. They have the size and length and the positions we positions need them, right at the edge of the defense.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel