MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Two months ago, WVU head coach Neal Brown deemed the position battle at weakside linebacker as the most intriguing competition on the Mountaineer defense.
Five weeks into the season, injuries are hindering WVU’s depth at linebacker, and the position group is once again under the spotlight.
Redshirt freshman Trey Lathan won the starting job at WILL linebacker over redshirt sophomore Jairo Faverus and freshman Ben Cutter during fall camp, and Lathan made his first collegiate start in Week 1 against Penn State. The Florida native even led WVU in tackling in two of the team’s first five games.
His season came to an abrupt end, though, against TCU when he suffered a leg injury that required surgery, and now the depth at WILL linebacker is as shallow as ever.
To make things worse, Brown announced Monday that junior linebacker Tirek Austin-Cave suffered an injury in practice during Duquesne week, and he has not practiced since.
Cutter is the top candidate to absorb Lathan’s stats going forward. The true freshman took a large portion of the first-half reps at WILL against TCU before Lathan’s injury, and the consensus among coaches is that he will see his role increase after the off week.
“[Cutter is] a guy that’s going to need to step up, for sure,” Brown said. “[Jairo] Faverus, Caden Biser, those are [also] going to be the guys. We won’t meet until [Tuesday] from a staff perspective, but when I talked to [defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley], and when we talked to [linebackers coach Jeff Koonz], those were the guys.”
Listed at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Cutter was the 13th-highest-rated defensive player out of North Carolina in the 2023 recruiting cycle, according to 247Sports. He registered 193 total tackles, two sacks, eight tackles for loss, and four interceptions in his senior year of high school.
Against TCU, he recorded a career-high six tackles.
WVU coaches recognized that he could make an impact well before Lathan’s injury.
“[Cutter has] played a good number of snaps the last couple weeks defensively,” Brown said. “He’s ready to do it. He’s a true freshman, but he’ll be ready. He’s physical. He’s smart. He’ll be ready.”
WVU employs two linebackers – MIKE and WILL – in its base defense, and Brown and Lesley said in the past that the two roles have parallel assignments. If they need to play a WILL linebacker at MIKE, they will, and they believe the transition should be seamless.
For example, Lathan started the Penn State game at MIKE, while veteran middle linebacker Lee Kpogba shifted over to WILL, and they flipped back to their original positions for Duquesne and beyond. Knowing this, other MIKE linebackers like Biser (a Morgantown native and son of the Mohigan’s head coach, Sean Biser) could be called upon to make the switch to WILL.
At the end of the day, Cutter, Biser and Faverus have zero career starts combined at the collegiate level, though Biser and Faverus have extensive special teams experience.
Kpogba (22 total tackles) leads the team in tackles, and he continues to be the heartbeat of the WVU defense. It’s possible that Brown and Lesley will rely on the senior linebacker to wear multiple hats on the defense as the season continues.
Bandits Jared Bartlett (11 tackles, 2 TFL) and Tyrin Bradley (5 tackles, 2 TFL) are two of the top-16 tacklers on the WVU roster, and the hybrid nature of their position could also make them attractive candidates for Lesley to try at off-ball linebacker.
Reserve players who haven’t seen much game action typically get most of their reps in practice on Monday nights, and Brown is hoping to replicate the backup-focused practices on Wednesday and Friday of the off week.
For Biser and Faverus, that will be the time to shine.