West Virginia defense will utilize 'odd' look in 2014

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Signs of spring sprang up around Milan Puskar Stadium Saturday afternoon. There was a steady rain, some slipshod play and a few hundred spectators milling around the Mountaineers' third open practice of the spring.

Truly revealing answers were few, as tends to be the case in March, but coach Dana Holgorsen was able to clear up one matter under the gunmetal sky.

The Mountaineers have indeed employed a 3-3-5 or "odd stack" defense. The 3-3-5 is a subset of the 3-4 scheme they ran under defensive coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson the past two seasons.

When Holgorsen promoted safeties coach Tony Gibson to defensive coordinator in February and added longtime Penn State assistant Tom Bradley as senior associate head coach, his operative word for restructuring the much-maligned Mountaineers defense was "simplify."

West Virginia allowed 455 yards and 33.3 points per game last season, both among the 25 worst marks in Division I.

The 3-3-5 uses a three-man defensive front with three true linebackers stacked behind them. There are five defensive backs, but two line up as hybrid safeties/outside linebackers.

The multiplicity of the scheme is its strength. Any number of backers can stunt, attack gaps and blitz -- creating a mask of intelligent chaos that is difficult for any quarterback to read, especially in an up-tempo league like the Big 12.

"[The 3-3-5] what I've wanted to do since I've been here," Holgorsen said. "You have to remain simple and sound with it. We don't want to trick anybody with what we're doing, but we want to be able to line up quick and bring a lot of different looks to the table."

In determining how to reshape the defensive scheme, Holgorsen said the staff borrowed from what opposing defenses had used to effectively slow the Mountaineers offense.

"I have to look at what gives [the offense] problems, because a lot of teams in the Big 12 have similar defenses," Holgorsen said. "The thing that gives us the most trouble is an odd defense, so that's what we're going to do. It will give us a bunch of different looks."

Line takes shape

Holgorsen said the coaching staff's focus this spring has been on developing depth. He has seen progress, but there's always room for improvement.

"Nobody has enough depth," Holgorsen said. "If you asked the reigning national champions, I'd imagine that they'd say the same thing."

On the offensive line, an area of concern this spring after losing three starters, Holgorsen has begun to see separation.

Redshirt seniors Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski, returning starters, have locked down the guard positions, while redshirt sophomore Adam Pankey and redshirt junior Marquis Lucas, a converted guard, appear to be the front-runners at tackle.

Versatility a plus

The West Virginia offense under Holgorsen and offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson has featured an expanded role for running backs, including bringing them out of the backfield to line up at slot receiver.

With five tailbacks battling for the starting job, Holgorsen said sophomore Wendell Smallwood and redshirt junior Andrew Buie have seen time in the slot. He called Smallwood the team's second-best inside receiver.

■ What: West Virginia Gold-Blue game, Mountaineer Field, Morgantown, W.Va.

■ When: 1 p.m. April 12.

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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