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New personnel means new strategy for West Virginia defensive line

West Virginia defensive line coach Bruce Tall is a tough grader.

“I identify different types of loafs,” Tall said, referring not to his shopping habits in the bread aisle. “I talk about how you loaf.”

Yes, Tall takes it seriously when his linemen give less than maximum effort on any play.

Last year in a 24-20 win at Texas in Week 11, the Mountaineers logged 100 defensive snaps. Nose guard Darrien Howard played 80 of them, Tall said, without a single loaf.

“I’d like to see how many nose guards in the country played 80 snaps in a game and never wore down,” the coach said.

Howard’s effort against the Longhorns exemplified the 2016 performance of Tall’s trio of starters, among the Big 12’s top defensive lines. Howard, Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown missed one start among them and played a total of 2,368 snaps -- 79.3 percent of the possible amount for a unit that led the league in defensive QBR, ranked second in yards allowed per game and third in rushing yardage.

They’re all gone now, seemingly a huge loss for West Virginia as it attempts to match or exceed the defensive success enjoyed in a 10-win season a year ago. But as WVU finished spring practice last week, Tall and coach Dana Holgorsen talked of a new strategy up front on defense.

“We spent this spring with nine scholarship guys,” Holgorsen said. “We’re going to be adding two more, potentially a third one as well. What that gives you is 10, 11, 12 bodies to be able to create competition, which I think is important for those guys to be able to go out and practice hard and earn snaps.”

Instead of taking 80 percent of the snaps -- or more -- in a game, the starters next season might play 50 percent.

The change “gives us fresh bodies,” Holgorsen said, “which is what I’m looking forward to.”

So who’s in line to start?

“I’m not prepared to single any of them out right now,” Holgorsen said.

Any conversation about the returning talent on the WVU defensive line begins with sophomore Adam Shuler, who started in place of the injured Nwachukwu at Texas and played well in September wins over Missouri and BYU.

Fellow end Reese Donahue impressed late in reserve duty as a true freshman. And the Mountaineers felt strongly enough about their potential depth to move second-teamer Alec Shriner to the offensive line.

Senior Xavier Pegues and junior Jaleel Fields, both knocked out in 2016 with injuries, continue to vie to replace Howard in the middle.

Ezekiel Rose fared well out of junior college this spring. Former walk-on Jon Lewis has progressed nicely, Tall said, and redshirt freshman Jeffery Pooler transformed his body in a year.

Add to that mix sophomore Stone Wolfley, a converted tight end, and juco transfer Jalen Harvey, and West Virginia appears as deep as Holgorsen had hoped it would be a month ago.

Tall said he could envision using eight to nine linemen. Ideally, that’s a nice plan in the fast-paced Big 12.

“You want to keep them fresh and moving,” he said. “I felt confident playing the younger guys last year, but there was such a gap [behind the starters], so I got in a comfort zone of leaving those guys in there.

“I’ve got a good group. They’re workhorses. It’s a horse race when you watch them train.”

A race with no loafs, if Tall’s message has reached its intended audience.