MORGANTOWN — It is difficult to imagine that there was talk of how improved West Virginia’s defensive unit was in the wake of giving up 33 points, 538 total yards, 288 of them rushing and 30 first downs, while not recording a sack against Alabama during the season-opening 33-23 loss last Saturday.
Yet there was.
In truth, that may say more about how bad the defense has been over the past two seasons than how it actually performed in the season opener.
Statistically, WVU ranked 108th in total defense after the first week of the season, which is in the same low-rent neighborhood last year’s defense resided, but there was something present that didn’t exist a year ago.
It came in the excitement and enthusiasm with which the defense played, being almost like seeing the first bud in the springtime and knowing that it would not be long before it would blossom.
Karl Joseph, at safety, for example, had an incredible 18 tackles in the game as he moved smoothly into the bandit position, a move meant to bring him into the heat of the action near the line of scrimmage.
The Mountaineers got solid play out of a group of linebackers in Nick Kwiatkoski, Wes Tonkery and Brandon Golson who put pressure on the elusive Blake Sims at quarterback. They never could him down, but they had him in a scrambling mode often during the game.
“If you go back and watch the film, we dialed in six different blitzes, and we had one guy come free, and we couldn’t make the play, so we were 0-for-6,” said defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “We had a guy come in clean, not even blocked, so it’s disappointing, but we’re going to learn from it.
“I think sometimes you get so amped up in that environment and that type of game and that type of atmosphere. I don’t know if the kids were a little nervous or they were scared to make a mistake or what it was, but we played hard. It was good film to watch and learn from. Hopefully there will be a vast improvement.”
Gibson went to the heart of the matter when he spoke of kids, for that is what creates the fountain of hope.
Kids make mistakes, especially early in the season, and Gibson is playing kids in key roles.
It began, really, with Dravon Henry, the free safety out of a proud program in Aliquippa, Pa., who is such a talent that he went through the entire game missing only one play … and remember Alabama was on the field for 82 plays.
He played so much that his position coach, Joe DeForest, went to him after the game and said:
“You’re no longer a freshman. You have two games under your belt.”
Perhaps the best part of what Henry did — and he recorded six tackles — was act as if he belonged without being intimidated by debuting in college against the storied and second-ranked Alabama program.
“He’s so athletic and fast. He made a great tackle on No. 2, the DeAndre White kid, actually put him out of the game,” DeForest noted.
Later, it came out that White had suffered a separated shoulder and would miss up to a month.
There were, as DeForest had expected, some growing pains.
“He was a step slow at stuff,” Holgorsen said. “What I’m looking at is number 26 for Alabama (safety Landon Collins) who is an All-American, third-year starter. Watching him, he’s quicker reaction-wise. He’s got a little bit more pop.
“But Dravon had a good game. He played well. He was a little bit out of position at times. He was a step slow at times. He didn’t have as much pop. But the good news is what I look at from Alabama’s number 26 is probably what we’re going to see out of our No. 6 here in the near future.”
The problem with playing freshmen is that they have to rely solely on their ability for they have no experience to call upon.
“There’s such a thing as recall. A freshman has no recall,” DeForest said. “Karl has recall. When something happens that he’s seen before, he realizes and he knows what to do. KJ (Dillon), same thing. When they have experiences they call pull from them to react to something.”
This is why it takes a special player to play as a freshman, the likes of Adam “Pacman” Jones or Keith Tandy for WVU.
Cornerback Daryl Worley has a year’s experience, but the Mountaineers moved him around to four different positions last year because of a lack of depth. This year, they have put him at corner and gave him the unenviable assignment of covering Amari Cooper in the opener.
Cooper caught 12 passes for 130 yards but no TDs and nothing longer than 24 yards.
“No. 9 for Alabama (Cooper) might be the first overall pick in the draft. He was a really good player. He got his. He caught the ball, and he got open. Daryl held his own. Daryl held his own, and Daryl is going to be a great player for us,” Holgorsen said.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel