Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

College Sports

April 18, 2014

New WVU coordinator brings back old defense

MORGANTOWN — Tony Gibson took over as West Virginia’s new defensive coordinator over the winter with the goal of trying not to do too much to rock the boat. As the fourth coach to hold that spot in as many years, the Van native — in his second stint as a Mountain-eer assistant — knew that his players needed some stability.

But with a defense that finished near the bottom of the Big 12, and the country, in each of WVU’s first two seasons in its new league, something had to change. The terminology could be the same and the basic scheme could be similar, but Gibson had to find a way to get different results.

In studying film and trying to determine his plan of attack, he quickly came to the conclusion that Big 12 offenses had as much to do with his unit’s struggles as its own ineptitude. Slowing down the pass-happy, speed attacks used by almost every conference member is no easy task for even the best defenses coaches.

Stopping Big 12 offenses, he realized, is virtually impossible. But to slow them down, the defense has to match the offense’s speed and athleticism.

So the biggest change Mountaineer fans noticed this spring — whether at the open practices in Wheeling and Charleston or at last Saturday’s Gold-Blue Spring Game — was a change in the outside linebacker spot, or spur as it’s known in Gibson’s offense.

Instead of playing four linebackers and four defensive backs behind a three-man line, Gibson kept the odd front but made the fourth linebacker more of a hybrid position.

Isaiah Bruce, who manned that position last fall, was a strong run stopper and was capable of pressuring the quarterback at times, but he wasn’t quite fast enough to guard receivers or running backs in pass coverage. So Gibson moved Bruce, who was a freshman All-American in 2012 and had 43 tackles and three forced fumbles last season, to the inside and made KJ Dillon, a junior who started at safety last year, the new spur.

It’s not quite a return to the 3-3 stack used by former defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel when he and Gibson coached together at WVU and Arizona, but the concept is similar.

So far, the move seems to have panned out for everybody involved.

“I definitely improved over the spring,” said Bruce, who’s more than happy at his new position. “I got stronger, faster and more mentally prepared as far as knowing what to do in certain situations. Putting me in the middle instead of outside has really helped me learn a lot. It’s all about being stable at one spot.”

Dillon, who drew hefty praise from head coach Dana Holgorsen at the conclusion of spring, has also made the adjustment well.

With more speed and athleticism in the mix, Gibson believes his team will be more prepared for Big 12 play, especially after facing Holgorsen’s offense — which is very similar to what the WVU defense will see in Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and others this fall — all spring.

“That’s the good thing about spring,” said Gibson. “In the fall we get to go good on good (first team offense against first team defense) a little bit, but in the spring we get to do it every day. That’s only going to make both of us better. Our kids have adapted well to it. They get lined up pretty quick, and we’re able to match them most of the time.”

Along with the switch at the linebacker spot, the WVU staff also has great faith in its secondary, where Jeremy Tyler and Karl Joseph will be the first two options at safety — if they aren’t beaten out by some newcomers before the season — and Daryl Worley and Ishmael Banks have impressed at the corner spots.

“Darryl Worley is as good as anybody I’ve ever had at this age,” said Gibson, who’s spent most of his coaching career working with defensive backs. “When we talked at the beginning of the spring, our goal was to keep him in one spot and let him grow in that position. I think he’s done a great job. He’s a team leader, and it helps when you make plays.

“Last year when I got here, he was one of the first kids I went to recruit and get to know. From that point on, I knew he was a kid that had it. He’s very focused, and he comes from a great family and great high school program. He’s got everything you want in a player.”

Holgorsen, who has put up record-setting numbers on offense during stops at Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and WVU, has certainly been impressed with what he’s seen.

“I think our defense has done a good job of taking away big plays,” he said. “(Wide receivers) Mario (Alford) and Kevin (White) have made big plays in Big 12 games, and we weren’t able to do that this spring. Mario has been frustrated because he’s had to go up against Darryl Worley so much. We think our corners are better than they have been (in a long time.”

•••

If the WVU staff already likes what it’s seeing, it should be thrilled this fall when four-star defensive back Dravon Henry, NJCAA All-American Jaylon Myers and three-star junior college transfer Daejuan Funderburk are added to the mix in the secondary.

The only question is just how this new, speedier offense will match up in the Aug. 30 season open against an Alabama team that doesn’t use the Big 12 philosophy on offense. Against Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, the Mountaineers will see a power game that relies more on strength than speed.

“They’re going to huddle and have some fullbacks, tight ends and different stuff thrown at us,” said Gibson. “We’ve got to prepare for that.”

Holgorsen said the first 20 preseason practices will be focused on team development, before the attention turns to Alabama the week before the game.

— Contact Cam Huffman at chuffman@register-herald.com and Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.

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