Shades of '08 for West Virginia defense?

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- On my trip to West Virginia last week, the one year that came up about as much as 2011 or 2010 was 2008.

That, of course, was Bill Stewart's first year as the head coach of the Mountaineers. And there are several similarities to the 2008 defense when it comes to this, Stewart's final season at the controls in Morgantown.

Like 2008, this 2011 club loses seven defensive starters off a senior-laden unit that was one of the best in the country the year before. West Virginia hopes the results are a little better.

To be sure, that 2008 defense was far from a disaster. It ended up leading the Big East in points allowed (17 per game), though it finished just sixth in total defense. The biggest issue came early on, when Stewart says the team wasn't experienced enough to throw out different looks in the first month against East Carolina and Colorado, both losses.

Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 stack defense has proved to be very effective over the years, but it runs best when he has veterans who know the system in and out. Stewart talked all last preseason about how the 2010 team masked its coverages just like the 2007 Fiesta Bowl team. It did just that in producing one of the best defenses in the country.

"This year is a lot like '08," Stewart said. "You've got to be able to disguise in the 3-3-5. If you just set it, you're in trouble."

Why is the 3-3-5 so dependent on experience and movement? Stewart and Casteel have not divulged much about the specifics of the defense or how it works over the years. Unlike other successful systems, they don't share tips at coaches clinics or have other schools come in over the summer to study how they do things.

"And we don't really care to," Stewart said. "It's not advantageous for us. The system is unique in the way we run it."

Suffice it to say that the 3-3-5 can confuse opposing quarterbacks and offenses because of the different looks it presents. One of the three safeties can come from anywhere, as well as the linebackers. But that also means that everyone on the defense has to be on the same page at the same time -- "like puppets on a string," defensive end Bruce Irvin said.

"In a lot of ways, it's a benefit to us that not a lot of offenses are seeing it week in and week out," Casteel said. "Nobody really runs it. We have a belief in the way we do things."

Despite the loss of so many starters, the Mountaineers still boast a strong core to build around. There's Irvin, the Big East leader in sacks who will play a bigger role this year. There's defensive end Julian Miller, who slides over to Scooter Berry's slot to take on tight ends and down blockers. Cornerback Keith Tandy will look to continue his elevated play after grabbing six interceptions last year. Safety Terence Garvin quietly led the team in tackles last year, and Najee Goode was an underrated presence at linebacker.

Now it's about working in some of the new guys, such as junior-college transfer Josh Francis at linebacker.

"He doesn't know where he's going right now, but when he goes, he gets there awful fast," Stewart said. "I never see him not going 100 miles an hour. I hope he doesn't drive on the highway like he plays on the field, because it's full throttle. But I know one thing: when he comes off that edge, not many tackles or backs want to mess with him."

Stewart also called linebacker Doug Rigg "a rising superstar" because of his understanding of the game, which he compared to former standouts Reed Williams and Mortty Ivy.

The Mountaineers have a mountain of a challenge in replacing nose guard Chris Neild; they hope a combination of Jorge Wright, Josh Taylor and incoming junior college transfer Shaq Rowell can do the trick. And they have to find replacements for cornerback Brandon Hogan and safeties Robert Sands and Sidney Glover, two rocks in the back end of the 2010 defense.

"We have some kids who can really run back there," Casteel said. "They're just puppies right now."

How fast those puppies grow up could determine how much bite this West Virginia defense has. Or how much like 2008 it will really be.