West Virginia defense looking to reload, not rebuild

With the end of spring football quickly approaching, Dana Holgorsen looks at West Virginia's defense and doesn't see a major difference from this time a year ago.

"They look the same to me," he said.

A look at the staggering amount of experience the Mountaineers defense lost off last season's unit invites inquiries about how good Tony Gibson's group can be this fall.

West Virginia lost 10 players who started double-digit games during their career with 262 total career starts and 525 total games played when Karl Joseph, Nick Kwiatkoski, K.J. Dillon and several other seniors exhausted their eligibility after the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl win over Arizona State. To top things off, junior All-Big 12 cornerback Daryl Worley elected to leave early for the NFL. Not only were those former Mountaineers standouts experienced, they were talented with Joseph, Kwiatkoski and Worley finding themselves projected as Day 1 or Day 2 selections in Todd McShay's latest mock draft.

Yet there's a strong belief in Morgantown that the Mountaineers' defense could be just as good as the 2015 group or better. Even though they lose a lot of experience, the players poised to fill the void have generally spent two or three years learning behind those standouts, biding their time until it was their chance to shine.

"Those guys are flying around," Holgorsen said. "They are doing a great job. If you look at the first-string defense right now, it is made up of juniors and seniors. We are at a point in this program where we are not replacing guys that graduated with new guys, junior college guys or freshman. We are replacing guys with players that have been in this program for several years. It looks like the same defense."

Defenders like Al-Rasheed Benton, Jeremy Tyler and Justin Arndt are relatively unknown but those same names could rise alongside proven playmakers like Noble Nwachukwu and Dravon Askew-Henry to form the foundation of West Virginia's defense in the fall.

"We lost a lot of senior leadership, but we have a lot of guys who, like me, have been in the system two or three years and have been waiting for their chance to play," Benton said. "Right now it's just that leadership, and being able to make plays that they expect you to make."

The 2015 defense set a high standard, cementing itself among the Big 12's top defenses while finishing among the top two in points per drive allowed (1.72, second), red zone defense (51.4 percent, first) and third-down conversions percentage allowed (60 percent, first) during conference play.

The strong showing from last year's unit makes it easy for doubters to assume the Mountaineers can't possibly match those numbers in 2016.

"I don't pay it any mind," Askew-Henry said. "People don't realize the talent we have here ... the talent that was behind Karl, behind KJ and Daryl Worley."

The biggest obstacle could be creating the confidence and belief required to get it done among a talented group of defenders that simply doesn't have that type of in-game experience. Benton, for example, started one game in 2015 as he earned defensive player of the week honors after recording seven tackles including two tackles for loss against Liberty. Yet that experience did wonders for the junior and should help as Benton heads into 2016 with an increased role.

"Once I got out there and got a chance to make some plays, and not just from special team's aspect, but to get out there on defense and make some plays," he said. "You realize you've been doing this your whole life. There's no difference."

The sooner Benton and inexperienced teammates can find that comfort level the better. And if they do, West Virginia's defense could surprise while cementing a spot among the Big 12's best for the second straight season.

"It's like Coach Gibson says, 'Nothing has changed, we're just reloading,'" Askew-Henry said.

Time will tell.