MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Jabril Robinson and Kenny Bigelow Jr. have something to prove, and it's started with proving to West Virginia’s football team that they’re both for real. If you let players and coaches tell the story, the two graduate-transfer defensive linemen with big-name billings can go ahead and check that one off their list.
The two bring different backgrounds and different styles of play: Robinson a high-motored edge rusher who played behind three of the top players in the country at Clemson; and Bigelow a top-tier defensive tackle who signed with USC out of high school but rarely saw the field due to injuries. Differences aside, the two are bringing a welcome change to the West Virginia defensive line, a unit that was looking depleted after two starters decided to leave in the offseason.
"They're both very mature players," defensive line coach Bruce Tall said. "They bring good spirit to the room, and they act like they've been there, and that's what's unique about them. They come in with a great attitude and they have a plan for what they want to accomplish and part of the plan is being a part of this team.”
“We needed that type of leadership in the room,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson added.
Robinson may be the biggest offseason acquisition for a West Virginia defense that was certainly looking to build defensive line depth. Leadership has come forth from the 6-foot-2, 270-pound lineman, but it’s been what he’s added to competition on the d-line that might be most welcome.
Defensive end Ezekiel Rose has seen it most.
“The way that Jabril is and the way I am, we’re like, 'Are you trying to one up me? No, you ain’t gonna do that to me,'” said the charismatic Rose, who led West Virginia in sacks last season.
The two began to gel almost immediately in summer camp, Rose said. That, too, came through the aspect of competition.
“My first time seeing him out there, we didn’t even have pads on, and he only had one speed — full speed,” Rose said. “I was like, ‘Calm down, you’ve got to learn how to practice,’ but he knows what he’s doing.”
It gave Rose an example to follow, he said. It gave him someone to beat day in and day out. Someone who had a taste of the College Football Playoff. It gave him someone who has been able to don a National Championship ring.
To Rose, Robinson is the epitome of valued experience, regardless if he only played 206 snaps last season.
“Jabril really knows what he is looking for, because he was on a championship team. He knows what it takes, what it looks like and what type of energy to bring,” Rose said. “He's one of the guys that'll bring positive messages every time we talk, but he doesn't talk much. But when he does get to talk, he says, 'Come on guys. We have to do this, we have to do that. I'm with you 100 percent. Whatever you do, I'm going to do with you.' It's just a positive thing every time he talks.”
Bigelow, too, knows his way around a football field. A high school teammate of West Virginia receiver David Sills, Bigelow was highly recruited out of high school. Rated as a Top 10 player overall and the No. 1 defensive tackle in the country as a senior, Bigelow’s ceiling was enormously high.
But injuries derailed the 6-foot-3, 300-pound tackle. After redshirting his freshman year at USC, he tore his ACL heading into the next season. That pushed him to stay in a backup role for the Trojans for a year before tearing another ligament in the same knee in 2016. He then retired from football.
Sills told media members that Bigelow had told him he wanted to go into coaching after he left USC. Two or three weeks later, Sills said, Bigelow wanted to strap the pads on one more time.
Granted a sixth year of eligibility, Bigelow put feelers back out to Division I programs. West Virginia found him.
Sills had his back when Dana Holgorsen and Co. asked questions.
"What I told them was Kenny was really unlucky, and I think if he didn't have those two ACLs, he'd already be in the NFL," Sills said. "I think he's an NFL talent, for sure, who just got unlucky in college."
Bigelow’s next chance at football provides a relief for West Virginia at nose tackle, where freshman All-American Lamonte McDougal left a sizable gap when he decided to transfer during the offseason.
“Kenny, obviously, is a massive man,” Gibson said. “He can play in the gap and hold onto a couple guys up front for us and let those linebackers run. Our linebackers really like him.”
And, just like Robinson, Bigelow is no slouch when it comes to commanding the respect of his peers.
“Now, Kenny didn’t put his four years in at West Virginia — he put them in at USC — but the guys respect that he’s been through it,” Gibson said.
While Robinson could be considered the hype man on the defensive line with Rose, Bigelow is the quiet, physical worker. Sure, he jaws back and forth. But when he stops talking?
“When he gets quiet, I know he’s about to put in some work,” Rose said.
For a West Virginia defensive line that recorded just 13.5 sacks a season ago, Robinson and Bigelow are much needed. Now, with some added help, Rose said it’s time to work.
“Everybody is buying into the defense. Everybody is on board,” he said. “Got the laser-beam focus.”
• Injury update: Cornerback Jake Long broke his hand. He'll be out a couple months, Holgorsen said.
• The team had to cancel its Fan Day because players had come down with hand, foot and mouth disease. Holgorsen commented on it Tuesday, saying, "It's poison ivy with a fever, basically. Their hands and arms aren't going to fall off."
• Holgorsen wasn't ready to name starters or release any type of depth chart, but that didn't stop Gibson from saying who would start at cornerback against Tennessee Week 1: Josh Norwood, Derrek Pitts and Hakeem Bailey.
• West Virginia has added a wide receiver during camp: Isaiah Esdale, an Eastern Arizona JUCO product. He went to the same high school as Sills, Bigelow, Wendell Smallwood and Dakiel Shorts.
• West Virginia was picked No. 17 in the Associated Press' Top 25. It's the second straight season West Virginia has been ranked heading into the season.
• Sills and QB Will Grier were both named AP Preseason All-Americans.
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