My motto for the West Virginia Mountaineers defense in 2018 has been, “just don’t suck.”
WVU returns a Heisman contender in QB Will Grier, outstanding WR weapons in David Sills V and Gary Jennings, and a shifty backfield duo of Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway. The offensive line is relatively stable. The Mountaineers, under Dana Holgorsen and Jake Spavital, should be absolutely fine.
But the defense? That’s another story.
WVU wrapped up the season a disappointing 7-6, that may have resulted differently had Grier not gotten his finger twisted in a direction I never hope to see again.
But the defense didn’t help the cause. One year after the Mountaineers won 10 games and Tony Gibson received a ton of praise for his 3-3-5 scheme, the wheels fell off. In 2016, West Virginia ranked first in the Big 12 in total defense (420 ypg) and scoring defense (24.1). But last season, Gibson’s unit ranked dead last in the Big 12 in allowing over 200 rushing yards per game, while ranking 8th in total defense (445 ypg) and 7th in scoring defense (31.5 ppg).
So as the Big 12 prepares for a year that no longer has Baker Mayfield for the first time since 2014, the conference feels as wide open as its been in a couple years. And there’s no better team more prepared to capitalize on that than the West Virginia Mountaineers, pending just a decent defensive performance.
Well, West Virginia got some more good news on Thursday when it was reported by Eers Sports that Clemson grad transfer Jabril Robinson would be heading to Morgantown. At 6’2”, 270, Robinson has primarily been a role player for the Tigers, but that’s nothing to scoff at, as Clemson has arguably the best defensive line in college football. With studs Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence deciding to return to the Tigers in 2018, the opportunities for Robinson were going to remain as a back up. Wilkins was a second-team All-American and first-team All-ACC last season, while Lawrence was also first team All-ACC.
So Robinson will help beef up a defensive line that desperately needs it. Last season he played in eleven games racking up 19 tackles. Through three seasons with Clemson, he recorded 38 tackles, three tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. Robinson saw an opportunity to help a team at a position of need, but also a team that, if it all clicks, can win the Big 12.
WVU was already light on the defensive line, especially after the shocking news that freshman All-American Lamonte McDougal announced he was quitting the team and transferring. When he quit, WVU had just four defensive lineman on the roster. Adam Shuler had also been lost to transfer and Darius Stills was the only defensive tackle on the roster. Stills had his moments during his true freshman season, but he was not who a Big 12 contender wanted to solely rely on in 2018.
Even better news for WVU is that Robinson joins defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow from USC, who also joined the program via grad transfer in recent weeks. Bigelow is 6’3”, 300 pounds and was an All-American in high school. Adding these two to the middle of the line, with Ezekiel Rose and Reese Donahue at defensive ends should provide enough chaos up front to allow the back eight to work some more magic. David Long leads the linebackers, while UCLA defensive back transfer Denzel Fisher comes in with 23 games played under his belt an excited about helping his teammates, saying, “It’s a real opportunity for me to come in with a leadership role and make an impact with the team. They told me they were looking for me to be the guy that’s going to be a leader in that group.”
The Mountaineers were thin at DB as well, with just two healthy scholarship cornerbacks all spring. The underlying story here may be the lack of quality recruiting from the high school level at certain positions during Holgorsen’s tenure, but we can leave that story for another day. WVU appears to have band-aided this year’s roster well enough on the defensive side of the ball to give itself a chance to make some real noise in the Big 12 this fall.
All they have to do is stick to that motto, “just don’t suck (on defense)”, and the rest of the conference should watch out.