MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Tackles and takeaways. Defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley wants to see improvement in both areas this season, especially when it comes to the latter.

Last season, WVU only finished with four interceptions, the lowest total in Lesley’s four seasons as the leader of the defense. The most picks during that span came in the first two years of the Neal Brown era. The Mountaineers tallied 11 interceptions in 2019 and 2020. The number decreased slightly the following season to 9 before dropping even lower.

Now, some positive news is the three players responsible for last year’s interceptions are back in 2023. Cornerback Malachi Ruffin finished with a team-high two in that category, including a pick-6 vs. Kansas State. Fellow corner Jacolby Spells also took one to the house in Blacksburg vs. the Hokies while safety Aubrey Burks reeled in his against Baylor.

“It’s been a point of emphasis, obviously, for the entire defense from Jordan down. Whether that’s getting the ball out for takeaways or interceptions,” linebackers coach Jeff Koonz said. “We make a big deal out of it. If you all are out there [at practice] and you see it, you’re going to see coaches coming off the sideline, you’re going to see energy because it’s a big deal. It’s been fun because there has been more.”

The Mountaineers also forced seven fumbles last season, which ties for the second-most over the past four seasons. The highest in that category was in 2021 with nine total.

As Koonz said, turnovers are a point of emphasis and that was reflected in the offseason additions. Three of the defensive backs that transferred into the program, corner Montre Miller and safeties Keyshawn Cobb and Anthony Wilson, tallied at least one interception last season and two of them also had a forced fumble.

Defensive backs coach ShaDon Brown said he makes sure his group is aware of the need to create them but doesn’t harp on the low number due to a crop of new players in the secondary. Brown said the key to making sure the number of takeaways increases in 2023 starts will proper alignment.

“If you don’t get into position, you are probably not going to make the play because you are always running to where your responsibility is. A lot of that is communication. A lot of that is knowing your job and feeling comfortable with everyone around you so you don’t have to overcompensate for someone,” Brown said.

Get aligned, play hard and execute. That’s his recipe for more turnovers.

According to players and coaches, safety Aubrey Burks is separating himself in that category. Linebacker Jared Bartlett tabbed Burks the ball hawk of the team.

“It feels like every day he has a takeaway,” Koonz said