MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It might be a good idea to keep a numerical roster handy when you watch West Virginia’s defensive line this year.
That’s because there are lots of Jimmies and Joes on this year’s team, and third-year coach A.J. Jackson plans on using most of them. Jackson talked about his young defensive line in the team room following this morning’s practice inside Milan Puskar Stadium.
“Guys are fitting in their roles, and we’ve got multiple body types, so it’s been good to kind of fool around with the three or four guys that are out there,” he explained.
“This group is different because their mentality is fixed on working and trying to be physical, and they’re all competing for those spots that are up for grabs. It’s been fun to coach this group,” Jackson added.
He likened his situation of replacing three starters this year to his childhood when he grew up rooting for the New York Jets and they let their “flashlight” Keyshawn Johnson go.
“I think we have 10 flashlights that are going to turn into one superstar,” Jackson predicted. “We don’t have the eraser, but we have a bunch of good players who run around and do their thing. The splash plays might not be there, but we will make all the routine plays that we’re supposed to make.”
Snap counts for his guys this year could be measured in spurts of three or four plays rather than 50 or 60. He just wants max effort for those three or four plays they are out there until the next group runs onto the field.
“It will be mixing and matching and all types of permutations,” Jackson noted. “We’re going to keep you on your toes up there. My guys embrace it. They like it.
“What’s the guy’s name from the Miracle on Ice, Herb Brooks? Well, I’ve got my line. We will run them in and out.”
With Dante Stills now playing for the Arizona Cardinals, Jackson admits WVU will likely have to scheme things up to create a pass rush from the defensive line this fall. It might even include different personnel groupings to get pressure on the quarterback.
Through two weeks of camp, Jackson said junior defensive tackle Eddie Vesterinen has been his most consistent performer. The Helsinki, Finland, resident said the other day that he didn’t come halfway around the world to West Virginia to “half-ass it.”
Jackson said Eddie V hasn’t.
“He’s just a technician, and he takes coaching really well,” Jackson marveled. “You tell him something, and he goes out there and does it at a teach-take level all the time. And the kid has got the most relentless motor of anyone I’ve ever coached.”
Neal Brown mentioned during Big 12 media day earlier this summer that he hopes junior Sean Martin can flip the switch and become an all-conference-type performer this season, but the Bluefield, West Virginia, native has been limited so far this fall. Jackson said he’s not too worried about Martin missing action, though, because he’s familiar with the playbook.
The two guys in the middle most frequently mentioned are Georgia Tech transfer Mike Lockhart and sophomore Hammond Russell IV. Jackson said both players need to demonstrate consistency and reliability.
“Mike is finally in shape,” Jackson said. “He came after spring ball when he transferred and didn’t get a full cycle of training because he was in the portal for a long time, so Mike’s in shape, and I think he’s turning into what he’s capable of.
“Hammond Russell is healthy and ready to go, and he’s pushing to get on the field after a year of injuries and ups and downs. (Penn State transfer) Fatorma Mulbah is going to get to go against his old school, so I think the competition is there and the hunger and motivation is there to prove themselves.”
Behind them are a couple of legacy players, Jalen Thornton and Corey McIntyre Jr. Cincinnati transfer Zeiqui Lawton and Zachariah Keith are also in the mix.
“I love those legacies,” Jackson said. “Those guys are in that mixture of players getting in there and making plays.”
With Martin limited, junior Taurus Simmons is taking advantage of his opportunity at defensive end and is running with it. Jackson said Kentucky transfer Tomiwa Durojaiye and Tennesse State via Kentucky transfer Davoan Hawkins are also showing flashes, and he expects to have injured Asani Redwood back at some point this season.
“Taurus Simmons has had a great camp, and I’m looking for him to take the next step as a guy who played a little bit but really hasn’t had much of a role yet,” Jackson said.
Jackson predicted Martin and Vesterinen will get some opportunities to rush the quarterback on passing downs, but his rotations could change frequently based on who they are playing.
“The parts of the playbook will be different for each guy,” he said. “Coach (Jordan) Lesley and I have a good idea what guys can do, and we’ll go from there.”
While this is not a big defensive line by Power 5 standards, Jackson said his guys are going to have to be fundamentally sound and play with great effort.
“We’ve got to be technicians and do it with a little bit of guerilla warfare, you know?” he said.
Jackson and his guys know they have a huge challenge in front of them in the opener at seventh-ranked Penn State. The word coming out of State College is that this could be the best offensive line of coach James Franklin’s tenure there, with a group that includes a potential lottery pick at left tackle in junior Olu Fashanu.
Also, Penn State’s top two running backs, Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen, are considered among the best one-two punches in college football.
“I always talk to them about matchups in college football and the chance of being part of something special,” he pointed out. “I’ve been in it for 12 years, and I’ve never coached a game on NBC at nighttime. There is probably no better place to go on the road and be motivated than playing at Beaver Stadium at night for a game. They will never forget that moment, so go up there and make it a really good moment.
“We are going to find out a lot about our guys against that offensive line and those running backs, but I think we’re right up there with our O-line and our running backs that we see every day in practice,” Jackson continued. “We have a stable of backs here and we’ve got an O-line with a ton of starts, so we see it every day in practice.”
In center Zach Frazier, Jackson pointed out that his guys are going up against a five-star talent during each practice.
“Sometimes you are just trying to get even with him because he’s so good, but the days when our guys win, they’ve got to think, ‘I just beat a really good center.’ On the days you got your tail kicked that’s what you are working towards,” he explained. “Doug Nester has had a lot of snaps. Tomas (Rimac) has taken over a starting role and Wyatt Milum has been great. All our guys are getting great work every day.”
Jackson said this Saturday’s scrimmage is going narrow down his top nine, 10 or 11 who will be on the bus for the trip up to State College. He said he’s looking for consistency, physicality and ball hawking on Saturday.
So far, he said he hasn’t pulled a hamstring trying to get his guys to do that.
“Hopefully, scrimmage day is moving day and we can get guys locked in,” he concluded.