WVU haunted by questions at linebacker

Mountaineers still figuring things out

MORGANTOWN — Depending upon who you speak with these days, the 2017 edition of the West Virginia University Mountaineers will either be very, very deep at the linebacker position or fans can expect to see only four different players holding down those trio of spots when No. 20 WVU opens its season against longtime rival Virginia Tech.

“Right now, we have four I am comfortable with, and two of those four still need a lot of work,” explained veteran defensive coordinator/linebacker coach Tony Gibson. “What I have to do is a better job of this week is start cross-training more guys. I don’t want to do it too quickly with (Brendan) Ferns and then start moving Al to Will and Xavier over to Will and then Ferns out to Sam because I want to see how we’re jelling. Once we get the install complete and get things rolling, then maybe we can do something like that.”

An evaluation not exactly on the same page as veteran Mike linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton.

“Coach (Tony Gibson) knows a lot more than I do, but I wouldn’t say that we have only four,” explained the redshirt senior. “I’d say that we have 14. I trust everybody in our room to make plays.”

Already faced with replacing the unit’s top tackler in 2016, Martinsburg’s Justin Arndt, the Mountaineers were blindsided by a knee injury suffered by returning Will linebacker David Long Jr. over the summer.

Putting a little more strain on the situation was Gibson’s frustration level reaching a boiling level over the first week of practice.

“I’ll just say there are certain things that he (Gibson) looks for that we weren’t getting done on that day,” added the New Jersey native. “I think we’ve done a good job of addressing those concerns since then and as a result we are beginning to play faster as a unit and not thinking too much.”

However, the depth chart is still in limbo as the Old Gold and Blue go through its second week of preseason practice.

Benton, who finished just behind Arndt with 80 tackles (43 solo) and one interception, is still the only ‘starter’ returning for last season’s 10-3 squad. Senior Xavier Preston came out of the spring atop the chart at Sam linebacker while Bridgeport native Dylan Tonkery entered camp as the heir apparent to replace Long.

Ferns, who missed the entire 2016 season with a knee injury, is listed as the next-guy-in-line at all three posts.

“He (Ferns) was always able to play,” explained Benton. “Now, he’s ready to dominate. What the year (off) did for him was that it allowed him to get to another level.”

A level that Gibson expects the other top reserves to reach if they want to see the field when WVU takes on the Hokies at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 3, at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.

“Coach (Tony) Gibby wants us to be just as good with our twos as we are with our ones,” explained senior Kyzir White. “We you play in the Big 12, you’ve got to have guys coming in that are just as good as the ones coming off of the field.

“Until he sees that on a consistent basis, he’s not going to be a happy coach. I think we are getting close to seeing that, but it’s still early in camp.”

The return of White and redshirt junior Dravon Askew-Henry, who missed the entire 2016 season with a knee injury, have helped solidify a secondary which lost All-American corner Rasul Douglas and as well as others.

“They’re the guys that have played the most and I think sometimes guys feel themselves a little bit too much and think ‘I’m really good’ and that’s not going to work on this defense. They’re easy targets when they start loafing and it’s easy to get on those guys.”

Two new names have cropped up when it comes to who will be in the depth chart up front in the Mountaineers’ 3-3-5 alignment – true freshmen Lamonte McDougle and Fairmont’s Darius Stills.

“The kid (McDougle) is a worker. He plays with great leverage. He’s very, very strong, moves, and he does some really good things. It probably helps that he’s 5-9 – he says it’s 6-foot, but I really think it’s 5-9 ¢.”

McDougle is the son of ex-NFL player Stockar McDougle while Stills is the eldest son of former-Mountaineer standout linebacker Gary Stills.

Contact Jim Butta via email at mountaineersman@outlook.com