This is Part II of my conversation with West Virginia coach Bill Stewart. You can read Part I here.
How happy were you to get Noel Devine back?
Bill Stewart: Noel is 1,000 yards, 1,200 yards, 1,500 yards ... I'd love to see him have a banner year, I really would. I'd love to see him have one of the greatest years ever because he's so deserving. He came back when he could have gone out. He's such a great role model. He's matured so much and become such a leader; he's become a leader in the community. This guy has done everything right. There couldn't be a better script than for him to come out on top.
On the defensive line, you have three starters back, and it looks like you have more depth now than last year.
BS: I was very, very, very frustrated with our defensive line depth and quality of play [in 2009]. Chris Neild, he's a warrior. If there is anybody better in the league, I didn't see him. He's one of those five, six, seven or eight guys in the league where you just say, 'Wow, this guy's a player.'
Julian Miller got better, Scooter [Berry] is back. We're so young behind them, but we've got some big, tall, fast, rangy youngsters who'll bring a lot of excitement to us, and it will be a whole lot easier on to get those boys in the game. So I'm excited about what we have; it just hasn't been done yet. The three older guys -- Neild, Miller and Berry -- we've got to get them some help. We've got to have some guys who can get them off the field and make some quality plays. We didn't have that last year. If you're going to win big, you've got to have two defensive lines.
I've heard good things about Will Clarke.
BS: Will Clarke will be a dandy. I think you're going to love B.J. Irvin. Some of these guys are growing and getting bigger. We'll be young, but, hey, we're going to let them play.
You have three returning starters at linebacker. How about that position and the depth behind them?
BS: J.T. Thomas, of course, is a leader. But, again, we've got to have quality play out of our young people. We can't play three seniors all year. That's like last year on the defensive line, we played three guys and nobody else played so nobody got any experience.
We've got to get some quality depth because three guys will be graduating and they're all young behind them. So we've got to find some young linebackers to provide us some quality depth. Those are my two biggest concerns of the defense. Can we find three more guys on the defensive line and three good young linebackers to say, hey, we can play at this level. That's what were not doing right now, I don't think. I'm very concerned about that.
You return a lot in the secondary. Do you feel like that's one of your strengths right now?
BS: I hate losing Nate Sowers and Boogie Allen, but really we lost two starters on defense: Reed Williams and Boogie/Nate, so it was three guys at two positions, if that makes sense. So we should be better. We're more cagey now, wiser now. We should make more plays out of the secondary with the corners and the safeties. They've been young the last two years and now we're ready. Those guys should step up and really be our leaders.
We used to be able to move around with guys like [Eric] Wicks and [Ryan] Mundy. We haven't had that the last couple of years. We line up and people know what we're doing. We've been scared, not cagey. Now I want to challenge them to do more. I want to play more man, I want to be cagey and disguise our coverages and I want to attack more. It all starts back in that secondary.
Robert Sands really came on at the end of the year at safety. How good can he be for you?
BS: He's a big, fast, powerful man. He needs to have a year for himself, and for West Virginia of course, a breakout year like Bradley Starks needs to have. And this would really set the stage for these guys. Starks needs to become an offensive star like Noel and Robert Sands needs to become a defensive star. He's got to be like Neild in the secondary. And then you say, 'Wow, OK, now we're cooking. This is really good.'
Overall, and we've already touched on a few of them, what are your most pressing issues for this spring?
BS: First and foremost, offensively we've got to get more consistent and finish. We were 9-3 and we had one bad quarter at Auburn offensively. Jarrett [Brown] tried to force that ball to Noel when the blitz came, and if he had thrown that ball to Jock [Sanders] he still may be running. But we didn't finish the fourth quarter at Auburn. We didn't finish three quarters at Tampa. For whatever reason, we're 2-3 against those guys [South Florida].
So we've got to learn how to be consistent and finish. That's all I keep telling them as an offense -- I want to finish the deal, close the deal, finish, finish, finish. I want to spread the wealth. I told you we've got two fine tight ends. I'm going to put Tavon Austin in the starting lineup. I want to feature Noel. I told him and Jock to get their butts in the best shape possible because, lads, you're going to be touching the ball.
But it all depends on, can our young quarterback -- whoever it is, because I don't know who it's going to be -- can he take this football team over and lead?
On defense, I think we need to become even more aggressive than we've been. I want to do even more blitzing, spend more time on man coverage. I think we've got guys who can lock you down and get after the quarterback. I want that [opposing] quarterback to know that when you play the Mountaineers, you'd better get it off and get it off quick, because it's coming. So more man coverage, more pressure and if we don't get more depth, it's going to bite us.