For the first time in over a decade, WVU football will open a season with its defense representing the strength of the team. The Mountaineer defense returns 16 players from the 2009 two deep.
The six players lost to graduation from the 2009 defensive two deep were Reed Williams and Ovid Goulbourne from the linebacking corps, safeties Nate Sowers and Franchot Allen, and reserve cornerbacks Guesly Dervil and Kent Richardson.
To imply that any of those six players will not be missed for their experience and leadership would be remiss. Yet, it is Reed Williams that will be the most difficult to replace.
Certainly, Williams will be missed for his defensive play calling and exceptional playmaking ability. Williams’ dedication and devotion were second to none. So great was his desire that he played the entire season with surgically repaired shoulders that would have sidelined most.
Ultimately it will be Williams’ leadership that the Mountaineers will find the most difficult to replace. Pundits often describe players as having “it”. Williams was undoubtedly one of those players.
Anthony Leonard, a 6’1”, 240lb senior will step into Reed‘s linebacker position.
The most important question facing Jeff Casteel and his defensive coaching staff, how do we replace Reed Williams’ leadership?
The answer may not be as allusive as one might initially believe. Chris Neild and Scooter Berry, both returning senior defensive lineman, are candidates, as is senior Sydney Glover and fellow safety Robert Sands a junior. Also in the mix is JT Thomas, a returning senior linebacker.
With seven seniors and four juniors as projected starters, leadership on defense will take care of itself. Few teams will field the amount of experience the Mountaineers do on defense.
Those 11 starters have combined to produce 1117 tackles in their respective careers.
Bill Stewart has challenged his defense to produce more turnovers in 2010. Stewart wants his defense to increase their takeaways to over 30.
"We need to get more balls out and force more turnovers," Stewart said. "We had six fumble recoveries last year. Six of them. We were seventh in the (eight-team) Big East in fumble recoveries. We were first with 17 interceptions. If we get the fumbles out and get the turnovers up a little higher, that's a big difference. I'd like to get into the 30s."
The Mountaineers will also be breaking in a new punter in 2010. Greg Pugnetti is the leading candidate entering spring practice.
Most college football teams enter spring drills with a myriad of questions to answer, WVU is no different. Defensively, the Mountaineers find themselves in the enviable position of having answers to those questions.
Mountaineer fans have become accustomed to the offense providing the catalyst for wins. That may again be true by the end of the 2010 season. It will be the defense that will begin the 2010 campaign as that catalyst.
Mountaineer football in 2010 will go only as far as its defense can carry it.