MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Thanks to its prolific, pass-happy spread offenses, the Big 12 is not known as a conference whose football teams play much defense.
But West Virginia’s defense is no sieve.
The Mountaineers ranked second in the Big 12 and 35th nationally in scoring defense last year, when they allowed an average of 24 points.
“That is one of the big things in the Big 12 — they think people don’t play defense. So we go out every week trying to prove and show people that we do,” WVU linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton said.
“Our kids get tired of hearing about it,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said of the Big 12’s no-defense reputation. “They play a little harder at times because of that.”
Cornerback Mike Daniels credits Gibson’s system for the unit’s success. West Virginia plays a 3-3-5 scheme that includes three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.
“It’s a tough system to run,” Daniels said. “You have to be a certain type of athlete and guy to do it, and we’re those guys.”
The Mountaineers ranked third in the Big 12 in total defense (425.9 ypg) last year.
“Big 12 offenses don’t see what we do week to week. We’re different,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said.
West Virginia allowed an average of 33.3 points in 2013, the season before Gibson was promoted to defensive coordinator.
Gibson made the defense stingier. West Virginia allowed 27.6 points in 2014 and 24.6 points in 2015.
“We put up pretty good numbers,” Gibson said. “We take take pride in that here.
“We feel like we have tough kids and a blue-collar work ethic.”
Of course, the Hokies have long been known for the stingy defenses of Bud Foster, who has been Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator since 1995 Tech ranked 28th nationally in scoring defense last year (22.8 ppg).
“Where we’ve been doing it for four years, they’ve been doing it for four decades,” said Dana Holgorsen, who is entering his seventh season as the coach of the Mountaineers. “I’d like to think we’re in that same conversation, but they’re good on defense.”
Holgorsen said his defense resembles Virginia Tech’s defense with its physicality. West Virginia ranked third in the Big 12 in rushing defense (168.2 ypg) last fall.
“We’re able to be incredibly multiple when it comes to being able to defend the spread, but also being able to load up and be physical and stop the run,” Holgorsen said.
Many Big 12 teams employ fast-paced offenses, but West Virginia’s defensive players can actually get some rest when the WVU offense is on the field. The Mountaineers like to run the ball.
“We’ve been able to do a great job on offense in keeping us off the field and not defending so many plays,” Gibson said.
West Virginia must replace eight starters from last year’s defense, including All-Big 12 cornerback Rasul Douglas, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the third round.
But the Mountaineers are confident their defense will still be good.
“We’ve got a lot of ballers,” said Benton, a returning starter who had 80 tackles last year. “The coaches have done a great job of recruiting and bringing in guys who buy into the scheme.”
All three starters from last year’s defensive line must be replaced. Gibson is not fretting, though.
“We’re deeper than we’ve ever been,” Gibson said of the defensive line. “We’re going to play a lot more guys.”
Kyzir White is the only returning starter in the secondary. But that unit does welcome back fourth-year junior free safety Dravon Askew-Henry, a former Freshman All-American who started every game in 2014 and 2015. He missed all of last season after suffering a knee injury in preseason practice.
“Losing a leader like that … hurt us, but now obviously we get him back and he’s picked up right where he left off,” Gibson said of Askew-Henry. “It’s very big, … especially in the secondary to calm some of those younger guys down a little bit.
“Him being back there makes me sleep better at night.”