MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – If Tony Gibson had his way, preseason camp would last about seven weeks and would include a couple of scrimmages. At least for this year, anyway.
Gibson is fighting Father Time in order to get his young defense ready to face 22nd ranked Virginia Tech in the 2017 season opener at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.
“We just haven’t done enough yet,” he said Monday. “We’ve had a couple of live days, but you’re talking 25 snaps each day so it’s not (enough). Obviously, we’re not game ready, but we’re not even really ready for the (scrimmage) part of it yet.”
Finding replacements for eight starters from last year’s defense also means he’s looking for competent backups behind them.
And that’s across the board at every position.
Gibson said he may go into the season with four nose tackles “sharing 15 or 20 snaps a game” until somebody seizes that position.
He still doesn’t know who his two starting corners are going to be, although he indicated on Monday that position is probably a little more stable than some of the other spots on the defense.
Senior safety Kyzir White
has played extremely well at spur safety and has likely locked up a starting spot, the fourth-year defensive coordinator admitted, while he hinted that he wants to see junior free safety Dravon Askew-Henry
ratchet things up a little bit because expectations are much higher for him in 2017.
Meanwhile, senior Al-Rasheed Benton
has been his solid self at middle linebacker, but after that the other parts to the defense are still very much fluid.
“We have 22 more days to get these guys prepared,” Gibson said. “What you look for as a staff is we’re saying, ‘Okay, who’s getting what we’re doing?’ And you see kids getting better and better and better and I think that’s what we’re seeing across the board.
“Now, is that our ceiling? I don’t know. Are we tapped out? I hope not, but with so many guys that have not played in a real game it’s hard to tell right now,” he said.
Probably No. 1 on Gibson’s to-do list is stabilizing the linebacker corps currently down its best player in sophomore David Long Jr.
, who is expected back sometime this fall after suffering a preseason knee injury.
If the season started today, Gibson would likely run out redshirt freshman Dylan Tonkery
at Long’s Will spot, paired with Benton at Mike and senior Xavier Preston
Behind them is redshirt freshmen Brendan Ferns
– at all three positions, most likely.
“Right now, we have four I am comfortable with, and two of those four still need a lot of work,” Gibson said. “What I have to do a better job of is this week start cross-training more guys. I don’t want to do it too quickly with 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.”
The three safety spots are an area of the defense where West Virginia has the most experience, but Gibson said he would like to see his safeties turn things up and start giving the defense a little bit more.
Those are three positions Gibson is counting on for energy and leadership this year.
“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,” he said. “They’re easy targets when they start loafing and it’s easy to get on those guys.”
Of course, another easy target is the two cornerback positions. Senior Elijah Battle
is the most experienced of West Virginia's corners, starting a handful of games last year, while Syracuse transfer Corey Winfield
is the most experienced player in terms of college game experience.
But neither player has locked up a starting job yet.
“Mike Daniels is hungry right now. He’s on his last chance; this is his last year,” Gibson pointed out. “Then you throw in (junior college transfer) Hakeem Bailey
, who is hungry to win a job. There’s some great competition, but there is still a lot of work to do there.”
That’s also the case at nose where as many as four different guys could be rotating at that spot, including true freshman Lamonte McDougle
from Pompano Beach, Florida.
“The kid is a worker,” Gibson said of McDougle, the son of ex-NFL player Stockar McDougle. “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 ½.”
Of the four guys in the mix at nose – senior Xavier Pegues
, junior college transfer Jalen Harvey
, McDougle and junior Jaleel Fields
, Fields is the only guy with any experience in Gibson’s WVU defense playing four games.
One other young defensive lineman Gibson singled out Monday was Fairmont’s Darius Stills
, the son of former Mountaineer standout linebacker Gary Stills.
The true freshman prepped at Fairmont Senior High.
“He’s a kid that’s doing some really, really good things,” Gibson said. “We just didn’t know if he would be ready and hopefully he can continue to keep doing what he’s doing and he will be able to help us.”
According to Gibson, the most surprising part about Stills’ development is how quickly he’s grasping the defense.
“It was never a question of talent. It was, ‘When is he going to be able to help us? Is it now? Is it a year from now?’ He’s had a great summer with Mike (Joseph) and I think he’s doing a really good job,” he said.
Right now, Shuler is probably West Virginia’s most consistent defensive lineman, followed by classmate Donahue.
“The last few days (Shuler) has been extremely good. I think he’s growing up. I think he’s maturing,” Gibson said.
Naturally, that comes with time and some seasoning – something Gibson can use a little bit more of with his young defense before the games start counting in September.