The biggest question mark on WVU’s 2021 football roster from an experience standpoint would seem to be at linebacker heading into the season.
West Virginia coach Neal Brown has addressed that situation, as he promised in the spring, using the transfer portal and a positional change to add depth to the unit.
With Lance Dixon coming in from Penn State and Deshawn Stevens transferring in from Maine, the Mountaineers added a pair of players with college experience. But how much that experience elsewhere will help when both players are thrown into WVU’s system remains to be seen.
Senior Josh Chandler-Semedo and junior Exree Loe are the only returning linebackers who have taken significant snaps at the position in a Mountaineer uniform. Chandler-Semedo, the MVP of last season’s Liberty Bowl, is certainly a good place to start after he finished third on the team with 64 tackles and tied for a team-best five pass breakups last season.
As a veteran and with two years of experience in Brown’s system, Chandler-Semedo gave his throughts on how the newcomers will adjust.
“It’s a different system,” he said. “You have to be a different type of linebacker to play in this system. We use more fast-twitch linebackers who cover a lot and can do multiple things. There’s definitely an adjustment period for those guys, but they’ll eventually figure it out. It just requires more than another system where you’re protected by two or three linebackers in the box.”
Chandler-Semedo’s assessment may be true, but that didn’t slow down Tony Fields a year ago. The Arizona transfer arrived in the fall and emerged as one of the best defensive players in the Big 12 Conference, leading the league in tackles per game with 9.78. His 2020 performance led him to the NFL, where he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns with the 153rd overall pick.
Fields’ quickness and athleticism helped make the Mountaineers one of the country’s stingiest defenses as WVU finished fourth nationally in yards allowed per game (291.4). His presence will be a difficult one to replace.
“What Tony Fields did so well — I think it’s important to note that Tony got to us about three days into fall camp, he wasn’t there in the summer, nobody had spring ball so he obviously wasn’t there then — but he was an eraser for us and he played the game at full speed,” Brown said. “He was really fast sideline to sideline, could match up coverage-wise with running backs in our league.
“I don’t think one person necessarily makes that. I think we’ve got to do a better job as a linebacker corps in general of playing in the box, which I think we’re capable of doing, and then we’ve got to do a better job of when we blitz. We didn’t do a good enough job last year of blitzing.”
To Brown’s point, WVU got just two sacks from linebackers last season, one each from Fields and Dylan Tonkery, who also graduated. Though Chandler-Semedo and Loe combined to make 110 tackles last season, only six came for loss.
For that unit to solidify and possibly improve despite the offseason losses, Chandler-Semedo will be the unquestioned leader. That’s a fact not lost on him, though he said the defense is full of several leaders.
“A lot of the guys who are veterans on our team have been leaders for a while,” Chandler-Semedo said. “So, it’s really nothing new, honestly. It’s really getting older, having another season with the same guys we just had — it’s not really much different.
“I’d say we have more leaders. Instead of having just one at each position group, we may have two or three. I can look at [safeties] Alonzo [Addae], Sean [Mahone], Scottie [Young] and [cornerback] Nicktroy [Fortune] and see the same leadership characteristics I see in myself and vice versa. We have more leaders if anything.”
Outside of the four aforementioned contenders, redshirt freshmen James Thomas and Jairo Feverus could factor in while wideout Devell Washington moved to the position in the spring to further increase depth. While the bodies seem to be there, outside of Chandler-Semedo and Loe, all are unproven commodities, at least at WVU.
So, despite his attempts to fill holes, even Brown admitted that the linebacker picture may not sort itself out until well into practices in August.
“We’ve got some moving pieces at that position,” Brown said. “I think fall camp is really going to determine how we go into the season feeling about that linebacker position.”