No. 11 West Virginia looks to improve on defense

It was the play that turned the momentum in West Virginia’s

favor in the Orange Bowl, when safety Darwin Cook returned a fumble

99 yards for a touchdown against Clemson in the Mountaineers’ 70-33

rout.

That probably wouldn’t have happened if not for the quick hands

– or, hand – of linebacker Doug Rigg.

Rigg, his left hand in a cast from a midseason wrist injury,

timed it perfectly with his right, reaching into a pile of players

at the goal line and stripping the ball from Clemson’s Andre

Ellington as he was about to score a go-ahead touchdown.

”I just reached in for dear life,” Rigg said. ”And thank God

with gloves on was able to stick to the ball a little bit and rip

it out. I think that really changed the game. Because after that,

their whole body language was defeated.”

Cook got all of the notoriety afterward, grabbing the loose

gift, sprinting the length of the field and knocking over the

Orange Bowl mascot in the end zone.

That may have been the highlight of the 2011 season for a

defense that recovered only nine fumbles and let opposing runners

have their way.

With Rigg and Cook returning, the challenges on defense are

large for No. 11 West Virginia’s debut season in the Big 12. The

Mountaineers lost four of their top seven tacklers and must find

some depth and work out the kinks of a new 3-4 scheme.

With changes all around, Rigg said the defense’s mentality

remains the same – relentless ball pursuit and getting to the

quarterback.

”We know the league we play in, it’s a lot of yards, a lot of

points,” Rigg said. ”So we’re just trying to come with the

attitude they can have all the yards they want, but if we’re

forcing four or five turnovers a game, that’s going to cancel out

those yards. So we’re coming with the whole get-the-ball-back

mentality.”

Something has to be done if No. 11 West Virginia wants a second

straight Bowl Championship Series berth.

The Mountaineers allowed nearly 27 points per game last year,

including at least 38 in losses on the road to Syracuse and at home

to LSU and Louisville. The defense ranked next-to-last in the Big

East in points allowed and last in rushing yards allowed.

Shortly after the bowl game, three longtime defensive assistants

joined Rich Rodriguez’s staff at Arizona. West Virginia coach Dana

Holgorsen then hired defensive coordinator and safeties assistant

Joe DeForest from Oklahoma State, co-coordinator and linebackers

coach Keith Patterson from Pittsburgh and defensive line coach Erik

Slaughter from Stephen F. Austin.

West Virginia released its depth chart Monday as it prepares for

the Sept. 1 opener at home against Marshall.

The coaches have placed a priority on finding depth for a Big 12

schedule that includes five ranked opponents. Among the defensive

starters and their immediate backups are 10 freshmen and

sophomores. The only freshman starter for now is Karl Joseph at

free safety.

”We’re going into a conference that’s pass happy,” said

assistant head coach Steve Dunlap. ”And there’s teams like Kansas

State that will try to pound the ball on you. We’ve got to be built

for speed in some instances and sometimes we’ve got to get physical

and get bigger on the field. It’s a double-edged sword as far as

personnel.”

The theme of this year’s defense is creating movement and

confusing the offense. DeForest is leaning on Cook, defensive

tackle Will Clarke and cornerback Brodrick Jenkins to be the

leaders.

On the line, tackle Clarke and Jorge Wright hope to soften the

loss of two other starters, including sack specialist Bruce Irvin.

Shaq Rowell will likely get his first start at nose tackle after

playing as a backup last year.

When WVU uses four linebackers, converted lineman Tyler Anderson

will get the call at the ”buck” position.

Besides Rigg, the other starting linebackers are Jared Barber,

who is coming off a solid Orange Bowl and started two games as a

freshman, and Terence Garvin, who is coming off knee surgery and

moves from strong safety.

Joseph enrolled at WVU last winter and was able to learn the

defense in spring practice.

”He’s very, very mature,” DeForest said. ”He’s very physical.

Our staff is excited about what he can bring to this defense. He’s

going to make some freshman mistakes – we know that. But he’s

definitely going to have an opportunity to play a lot of football.

I think he’s up to speed. The hardest thing for freshmen is how

long the haul is during the season. And he’s got to learn

that.”