Senior S/LB Terence Garvin
I feel bad writing a cautionary piece, seeing as how the cake has only just been cut in celebration of West Virginia's official entrance into the Big 12 conference. It's a time for jubilation, a time for looking westward towards everything that is so unfamiliar and so filled with potential.
It's also a time to dig in.
Dana Holgorsen travels back to his roots this fall commanding an offensive arsenal as good as any in college football. No one is arguing that.
But despite the kilotons of air raid power West Virginia boasts heading into 2012, the Mountaineers' defense will still need to take the field.
Expect lots of question marks to follow them out onto the turf.
While there are a few experienced players returning to assume leadership roles, losing stalwarts Julian Miller, Keith Tandy and Najee Goode hurts. Losing a superstar like Bruce Irvin hurts even more.
The Big 12 is a war ground of offenses pitched in continuous battle. As such, this Mountaineers defense will be relying on several players for their poise, experience and all-around talent to help march them through the deluge of an inaugural Big 12 conference schedule.
These are the five players the West Virginia defense will be depending on most come the 2012 season.
Hoover, AL native Pat Miller finally came into his own in 2011.
The early part of the season was anything but glamorous for Miller, who received a bit of criticism for his inconsistent play, particularly in man coverage.
Late in the season, though, Miller made a few big plays, including an interception return for a touchdown in a pivotal game against South Florida, and another interception of Clemson's Tajh Boyd in the Orange Bowl that helped to prolong the Mountaineers' now canonized 2nd quarter melee against the Tigers.
Coming into his senior year, there's no discounting how vital Miller is to the Mountaineers on defense.
In the Big 12, your secondary needs to be up to the task week in and week out. Unlike the Big East, where teams more or less favor the run, teams like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor try to win through the air.
Miller will also have to make quick work of learning Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson's newly implemented 3-4/4-3 hybrid scheme, forgetting his time in the confines of Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 stack.
The word out of camp is that the new defensive philosophy is more free-wheeling, allowing players to react and be less concerned about gap assignments.
For Miller, this can only be good news. It simplifies the task at hand, which is, of course, to stop the pass at all cost and greatly increase his interception total from 2011.
Of course, it doesn't hurt having junior Brodrick Jenkins likely holding down the other corner spot. Jenkins, though, is a year behind Miller and is looking for a break out year himself in 2012.
All of which makes Miller the de facto No. 1 corner for the Mountaineers.
He doesn't have much choice, really. With Keith Tandy, widely regarded as one of the best coverage corners in the Big East, now gone to the NFL, it's clear that Pat Miller is the grizzled veteran at corner for West Virginia's.
Here's hoping he can play like it in 2012.
It's possible that West Virginia's defensive unit suffered its greatest losses along the defensive line.
Julian Miller was a vaunted player during his career in Morgantown and Bruce Irvin was a pass-rushing phenom that many in Mountaineer nation wish had spent more time in the gold and blue.
While run contain may not be priority No. 1 in the Big 12 (Kansas State and Texas, aside), a strong presence up front will only increase the amount of mistakes opposing quarterbacks make as they try and push the ball up-field.
Here's where Will Clarke factors in.
The rising junior from Pennsylvania is a man-child at 6'6", 270 pounds and has steadily progressed while seeing quality minutes on the field for West Virginia.
In 13 games last season, Clarke tallied 35 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a broken up pass.
Clarke possesses NFL-size and athleticism at the end position and he'll need to use every bit of it as he attempts to step in for Miller and Irvin.
Clarke will get help, namely from fellow ends J.B. Lageman and Trevor Demko, and veteran tackles Shaq Rowell and Jorge Wright.
This will be a huge year for Clarke to prove what he can do after getting to understudy two of the most talented defensive linemen to have played at West Virginia in quite some time.
Look for Clarke to greatly improve in 2012 and be at the forefront of a re-engineered West Virginia defensive front.
If Will Clarke doesn't step up, I'm not sure who will.
If the Mountaineers can be considered deep at any position on defense, it would have to be at linebacker.
Jeff Casteel's days in Morgantown were notable for some of the stand-out linebackers that he and his staff produced, including J.T. Thomas, Anthony Leonard, Reed Williams, Grant Wiley and Najee Goode.
The Mountaineers return a good amount of young talent at this position, many of which saw time on the field last season.
Most notable, though, may just be New Jersey native Doug Rigg.
In 2011, Rigg registered 29 tackles and a sack, and is third among returning players with tackles for loss (4 TFL in 2011).
At 6'1", 240 pounds, Rigg is a big, physical backer who has surprising ability in pursuit.
Alongside fellow linebackers Jewone Snow, Jared Barber, Taige Redman and former JUCO star Josh Francis, Rigg will try and anchor a West Virginia linebacker corps that will have much more free reign in the new 3-4/4-3 scheme.
This means more pursuit and more movement towards the ball, instead of being anchored to a particular gap, something any tackle-hungry linebacker would approve of.
I grant that this group is close, as Snow and Barber both had good seasons in 2011 right on par with Rigg, and Francis, who was highly touted upon arriving in Morgantown, is due for a break out season.
However, Rigg is a veteran and his versatility is not unlike erstwhile captain Najee Goode who is a recent addition to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by way of the NFL draft.
Rigg could be a catalyst for a young and potentially gifted Mountaineer linebacker corps that has the ability to surprise many critics and stymie some of the high-octane Big 12 offenses it will face in 2012.
Safety Darwin Cook
It was one of the most unforgettable images in all of last year's bowl season, and perhaps the capstone to the most over-the-top bowl game of all time.
Darwin Cook scooped up a loose football at West Virginia's goal line and sprinted 99 raucous yards to turn the tide of the Discover Orange Bowl, crashing into the mascot, Obie, in the process.
For better or worse, Cook's legacy has been defined by this one play and it's up to him to write a stronger, more well-versed chapter in 2012.
The Cleveland, OH native is certainly capable.
Cook is a heat-seeking missile at the safety position and, coming into 2012, is the team's returning leader in tackles (85 total in 2011).
Quite an accolade for a player just entering his third season.
Wes Tonkery, Matt Moro and the highly anticipated freshman Karl Joseph will all help Cook guard the deep third and save West Virginia from several potential shoot-outs.
Cook will be the man, though, as his aggressive nature and nose for the ball is requisite for anyone manning the safety position.
In the preeminent pass happy league that is the Big 12, you can expect members of the Mountaineers secondary to once again collect the bulk of the team's tackles.
First year secondary coach Daron Roberts will no doubt have his guys schooled rigorously in different coverages and basic technique by the time West Virginia squares off against Marshall in week one.
Still, just like a dunk can ignite both a team and its crowd on the hardwood, a huge, resounding hit can ignite a crowd of 65,000 and make opposing quarterbacks think twice about teeing up their receivers on the next play.
If Darwin Cook has a mantra in 2012, it should be 'hit stick.' I think his brethren in the secondary would agree.
There may not be one single player more important to the Mountaineers' fortunes on defense in 2012 than senior Terence Garvin.
The Baltimore native has been a force on defense since earning a starting spot in 2010.
The 6'3", 220 pound athlete has notched 158 tackles in his career, including 72 in 2011, despite missing two of West Virginia's late-season match ups.
In DeForest and Patterson's new scheme, Garvin figures to play a hybrid safety/linebacker role.
Having sat out the duration of spring and subsequently missing the gold-blue game, no one has been able to get a glimpse at exactly how Garvin will operate in his now-modified role.
Still, given Garvin's athletic ability and his penchant for wreaking havoc across different levels of the field, it's a sure bet that Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson will use Terence Garvin as a veritable Swiss Army knife.
Garvin is also seasoned, having been a member of three bowl teams and having a hand in collecting 28 wins over the last three seasons. Terence Garvin's experience will be one of the most effective learning tools available to the younger, less battle-scarred members of the West Virginia secondary.
This could be a hallmark year for Terence Garvin and a 'take it or leave it' opportunity for him to inject a great deal of confidence into this Mountaineer defense.
A healthy, full-tilt Terence Garvin will only galvanize West Virginia on the defensive side of the ball. This truly is his defense to captain and thus, it's his moment to hold up the megaphone to the rest of the Big 12 and announce that these Mountaineers aren't strolling into their new home afraid.
If you're wondering who the heart and soul of this Mountaineer defense will be in 2012, look no further than Terence Garvin.