West Virginia defense has a lot to replace

West Virginia junior safety Robert Sands declared for the NFL draft over the weekend, which came as little surprise.

The 6-foot-5 Sands has been one of the top playmakers in the Big East the past two years and had 34 tackles -- 6.5 of them for loss -- in 2010. He received an evaluation from the NFL draft advisory board and obviously liked what he saw. Sands has the skill set to be highly successful as a pro.

The Mountaineers were clearly braced for the loss of Sands -- head coach Bill Stewart said last spring that his top safety could make the leap with a strong season -- but it still creates a void for 2011. Even with a below average performance in the Champs Sports Bowl, the West Virginia defense finished fourth nationally in both yards allowed and points allowed. But it will have to replace many valuable players next season, including:

  • Nose tackle Chris Neild

  • Defensive end Scooter Berry

  • Linebackers J.T. Thomas, Anthony Leonard and Pat Lazear

  • Cornerback Brandon Hogan

  • Safeties Sidney Glover and Sands.

That's eight starters lost. There are still some solid returnees, including defensive end Julian Miller, linebacker Najee Goode, safety Terence Garvin and cornerback Keith Tandy. They were all starters in 2010. Bruce Irvin should move into an every-down role at defensive end opposite Miller, and junior college transfer Josh Francis could provide immediate help at linebacker. The Mountaineers will look for young players like Will Clarke, Brodrick Jenkins and Pat Miller to make major strides in the offseason.

Still, it's hard to make up for the veteran leadership that defense had, and how its knowledge helped Jeff Casteel disguise coverages so well in the 3-3-5 alignment. Casteel is sticking around, which might be the best news of all. He'll have his work cut out for him in 2011, though, and it would be unrealistic to expect the Mountaineers to repeat the same kind of defensive dominance they did this year.