If there's one reason to be optimistic about the 2009 Mountaineers, it's the linebackers.
There's no way of knowing now if this is the best group in the Big East, or the nation, as some have said, so I won't. Instead, let's be a little more empirical.
In Jeff Casteel's atypical 3-3-5 stack defense that WVU has employed for several years now, the linebackers are the playmakers. That's why it's not unusual for WVU's defensive linemen to have few sacks. Their job is to take on double—and triple-teams, hold their ground, gum up the line and let the linebackers (and sometimes the safeties) swoop in and make the tackles.
This year's linebacker story begins and ends with senior Reed Williams.
Williams was the defensive MVP of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma, but then found out he had two bum shoulders. He managed to play only two games in 2008 before redshirting for the season, getting surgery and preparing for the 2009 season. Reports from Williams and the team say he's 100 percent and a year smarter. (Despite playing only two games last season, Williams managed to rack up 17 tackles and an interception.)
Last year's defense was no slouch without Williams. The team finished 11th nationally in scoring defense, allowing only 17 points per game. It was No. 1 nationally in red zone defense, which apparently is computed by a number of statistics you don't need to know.
The point is, the defense was good without Williams, who, in 2007 as the middle linebacker, was the defense's quarterback. There's no reason not to expect similar performance this year with him.
Joining Williams on one side will be J.T. Thomas, a redshirt junior, who had a team-high 10 tackles for loss last year and is probably the fastest linebacker. Look for him blitzing more this season.
On Williams's other side will be junior Pat Lazear, who got plenty of playing time as a backup last year and made the game-sealing interception in the Meineke Car-Care Bowl victory.
Backing up this trio will be experienced senior Zac Cooper, a linebacker who was moved to defensive end in an experiment to get some speed at the rush end but has been moved back to linebacker; redshirt junior Anthony Leonard, who was forced into the starting middle linebacker role last season, probably too early, when Williams finally called it quits; and either redshirt senior Ovid Golbourne or redshirt sophomore Najee Goode.
Leonard had a monster, 16-tackle game in the victory over Auburn and is probably back to his natural position.
Golbourne is a former running back who got plenty of backup time last season.
Goode is the most impressive physical specimen of this bunch, who all look like they've been punched out of the same 6' to 6'2", 220 to 240-lb. mold.
Despite the returning promise and experience, this group suffered a key loss to graduation: Mortty Ivy, who just made you feel more comfortable when he was in the game. In addition to his 90 tackles and three interceptions last season, Ivy was a smart and capable field commander. Even with Williams's return, Ivy will be missed.
I like the way this group looks and feels, I like their experience and their speed and athleticism. They should be fun to watch.
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