Biggest shoes to fill: West Virginia

During the next two weeks, we'll be looking at the biggest shoes that need to be filled on every team in the Big 12.

We wrap up the series with the West Virginia Mountaineers:

Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski

Karl Joseph won’t be easy to replace after four years as a starter, but the Mountaineers were forced to fill the void earlier than anticipated after Joseph’s season-ending injury in October made West Virginia turn to Jarrod Harper midseason.

Replacing Kwiatkoski could be just as difficult. He finished with 295 career tackles (200 solo) including 28.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, six interceptions, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries while starting three straight seasons in Dana Holgorsen’s program. Replacing that type of production is not a simple task.

Xavier Preston has the chance to be a ready-made replacement. The Florida native had an expanding role as a sophomore in 2015, finishing with 18 tackles, including three tackles for loss, as Kwiatkoski's backup. He was one of the standouts of the Mountaineers’ spring in 2015, so if he matches that feat with another stellar spring in 2016, he could answer the question of replacing Kwiatkoski’s production.

Another option could be ESPN300 linebacker Brenden Kerns, who signed with West Virginia on Wednesday after picking the Mountaineers over Penn State. A versatile linebacker prospect who could end up at several different spots in the Mountaineers’ defense, Kerns is likely to begin his time in a West Virginia uniform at outside linebacker.

“I see him lining up at outside,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “He’s a long, athletic and smart kid who can line up outside and play the Sam or the Will positions. I’m really excited about that.”

Other linebackers, such as Al-Rasheed Benton, won’t directly replace Kwiatkoski in the defensive system but could help fill the overall playmaking void.

Kwiatkoski was a versatile performer who lined up at several different spots during his career and his leadership will be tough to replace. Yet the Mountaineers could have the depth and experience to match his production in 2016, even if it takes more than one defender to step up and become a playmaker in Gibson's system.