Big 12 Media Days are open for business! – The Gold and Blue Nation Podcast
The Mountaineer defense has been a backbone for West Virginia through its up-and-down three seasons under Neal Brown, but the upcoming season, he says, might be its best.
In 2021, WVU’s unit held nine of its 13 opponents under 30 points and allowed 350 yards per game — the 37th-best mark in the country. It was even better in 2020, topping the Big 12 in both total and scoring defense as arguably the best defense in Power Five football.
That might be hard to beat in 2022, but the head coach feels it can do it.
“We think this defensive unit has the opportunity to be the best that we’ve fielded so far,” Brown said. “We’re never going to lose what makes West Virginia special, and that’s toughness. We really try to mirror the mindset of our state, and West Virginia, it’s a blue-collar group that goes to work, and are really proud of their heritage. That’s the same fundamentals we’re trying to look for and trying to put on the field on the defensive side of the ball every Saturday.”
There has been some personnel turnover on WVU’s defense as it has lost some key players on all three levels in the offseason. Many, like defensive tackle Dante Stills and cornerback Charles Woods, returned, providing their coaches with a source of confidence.
Stills owns much of the spotlight for WVU this preseason. A highly-touted prospect out of Fairmont Senior High in 2018, he enters his fifth season with the Mountaineers after weighing the option to go pro. He has some high expectations already, earning some preseason honors for the second year in a row.
The upcoming season for Stills, Brown said, will be about building consistency.
“As he went through that process of making the decision of whether to come back or not, it was humbling, and he understands that he needed to be consistent, and he needed to put in work, and he’s done that,” Brown said. “I’m excited to see what his production is going to look like in the fall.”
What sets this unit apart for Brown is actually the additions. Lee Kpogba joined the program in December as a junior college transfer with Power Five experience and immediately assumed WVU’s role of mike linebacker.
Kpogba excelled as coaches and teammates raved about the fiery addition throughout the spring.
“If you look at a guy like Lee Kpogba, who came in the spring and will be our starting linebacker, who did not have a traditional path, but here he is, and we think he’s got a chance to be one of the better linebackers in the league,” Brown said.
Kpogba represents a full crop of defensive players with unusual paths to WVU, like Woods, who had a breakout season with the Mountaineers in 2021 after transferring from Illinois State. Brown’s staff dug deep in the transfer portal to bolster the defense, as several starters will likely be products of the portal.
Ultimately, the key to WVU’s defensive success has not been the names on the depth chart.
“I think the collection of players that we’re going to have, our whole is going to be maybe better than each individual,” Brown said.