MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Depth is important to any team, but especially so when you’re projecting to play nearly 100 snaps each way during the course of a football game. West Virginia’s football team had some questions heading into the season in the depth department, and the Mountaineers are finding answers as the season gets rolling.
Defensively, depth along the front line was the key issue heading into the offseason. It’s been written time and time again how Dana Holgorsen and his staff went out and picked up two big-name graduate transfers and signed another four-star end to bolster that unit, but it was unclear how it would all come together.
The Mountaineers’ defensive line was counted on a ton during Week 1 against Tennessee when linebacker Charlie Benton went down with what wound up being a season-ending knee injury — so much so that Tony Gibson switched to a 4-2 look on five different occasions, working to get his best 11 on the field.
The rotation up front mainly consisted of ends Ezekiel Rose, Jabril Robinson, Reese Donahue and Dante Stills with nose guards Kenny Bigelow Jr. and Darius Stills working in the middle.
Seven and a half of West Virginia’s 12 tackles for loss (63 percent) came from the defensive line. In recent years, West Virginia’s defensive line accounted for 30 percent of the team’s tackles for loss in 2017, 33 percent in 2016, 32 percent in 2015 and 28 percent in 2014.
A big part of that success was being able to get breathers.
“We’re splitting reps, and we're all getting quality reps. I feel like that really helps, like with Darius playing, and even Dante got some good reps in,” Rose said Tuesday. “Just having that many people in the rotation helped out a lot.”
Though Darius Stills saw action last season, he was praised this offseason for having a good spring and summer camp. Still, you never know how that will translate onto the field.
For the sophomore from Fairmont, W.Va., it turned into 2.5 tackles for loss against an SEC opponent. He ended up with four total tackles.
“I thought Darius played really well,” Gibson said. “Darius made some huge plays in an important time of that game.”
His brother Dante, a freshman, found his way onto the stat sheet with a tackle, too, and Gibson lauded him for his efforts against a big-time tackle.
The learning curve for the two brothers might be skewed a bit, having come from the lineage of Gary Stills, a former Mountaineer and NFL defensive lineman. They know what to expect, their teammates said, and they’ve come along nicely.
“They're great. They're talented, talented, talented guys. They're young, and they have to remain coaching, remain humble and believe and trust in the process,” Bigelow said of the brothers. “I see the talent in those guys. I see the potential in them. I see a lot of my younger self in both of them — the good and the bad. Whenever I see something, I make sure to say the things that I wish somebody would've said to me. I just try to encourage and talk to them when I can.”
Bigelow made big plays in his own right, starting his first collegiate game after a rocky journey from being a five-star prospect to a retired college football player before coming to Morgantown.
His first-play forced fumble set the tone for West Virginia’s defense, and he spent the majority of the game eating up offensive linemen for West Virginia’s linebackers to make plays.
“He can do it at all times,” Rose said of Bigelow. “He’s actually a really good player. I love watching Kenny play. I was on the sidelines looking at him, and as soon as he came up and did what he did, I said 'Run that back. Do it again, Kenny.' A couple plays later he did it again. That's what I was talking about.”
Robinson, a grad transfer from Clemson, finished the game quietly with three tackles, and he just missed a sack early in the game on a hit that took off the helmet of Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
Offensively, Alabama transplant T.J. Simmons did his best to make himself known to Tennessee’s defense, hauling in a 59-yard touchdown pass that saw him come across the field from the right side before catching a perfectly-placed throw from Will Grier in traffic. He then sprinted down the left sideline and into the end zone, serving as one of three West Virginia receivers to catch touchdown passes.
“I didn't know he could run that fast. I told him, 'That's the fastest I've ever seen you run,’” receivers coach Tyron Carrier said. “We knew we could get that out of him. He's a special kid.”
Though it was his only catch of the game, he showed that he could provide some depth behind David Sills and Gary Jennings, both of whom went over 100 yards in the season opener.
Other depth options offensively came in the form of two guys who have been with the program and have found limited success — running back Martell Pettaway and tight end Trevon Wesco.
Pettaway got the start for West Virginia and carried the ball nine times for 56 yards. He didn’t score, but many were shocked to see him earn the starting nod over Kennedy McKoy, who didn’t enter the game until the second half.
“He deserved it. The kid had an unbelievable summer. He's worked tremendously hard, and he's motivated,” offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said. “He’s a selfless guy; he doesn't care if he gets the ball or not. He just wants to be out there on the field.”
The very fact that Pettaway, who could just as easily be seen as the third or fourth best rushing option on this team, got the start shows the depth of this running back room, Spavital said.
“You have to go with a guy, and if he has the hot hand, then you have to stay with it. It really is putting the pressure on that room. When they have the opportunity to perform by playing, it'll get to the point where we won't take you out of the game,” he said. “We're going to utilize all of these (running) backs. You can see that we're going to try and get it to all of them. They all ended up having certain touches at certain point of the game. That's going to increase based off having more opportunity.”
All four of West Virginia’s backs — Pettaway, McKoy, Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield — combined to carry the ball 22 times for a total of 111 yards.
Wesco’s season opener showed that West Virginia will in fact use tight ends this season. He caught two passes for 35 yards. It doesn't sound like much, but he had just two catches for 7 yards (not counting a two-point conversion) in two full seasons with West Virginia heading into last week.
Backup tight end Jovanni Haskins also caught a pass for nine yards.
The Week 1 takeaway? Depth is evident, and depth is good.
“It makes everybody excited. Everybody wants to get a piece of the pie,” Wesco said. “Everybody pretty much did, and it's good for our team.”
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