MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Say this about West Virginia's young defense: It can put up a fight.
Practice Wednesday morning at Mountaineer Field briefly was interrupted by a bench-clearing shoving match after two defenders tackled an already wrapped-up receiver. It was the most visible confrontation this spring, although other practices have been interrupted at times by post-whistle shoves.
"You've got to do something to get the practice amped up," said linebacker Najee Goode, who will be a senior this fall. "That ain't too bad."
Goode and the rest of the Mountaineers defense is not letting much come easily this spring to the re-tooled offense. The defense is using its aggressiveness to develop an identity in the shadow of a much-hyped new offense and in the wake of the departure of seven starters.
"We're making a lot of mistakes," cornerbacks coach David Lockwood said. "But, when you have a lot of young guys, that happens."
The Mountaineers boasted one of the nation's top defenses last season, ranking second in the country in sacks and third in scoring defense and total defense.
"It feels like everybody forgot about us," said defensive end Julian Miller, a senior. "To a point, it really doesn't get to us that much. We just want to come out there. We understand that we've got guys in different positions and we're going to have to -- I wouldn't say rebuild, but reload."
Miller, a starter in 25 of the Mountaineers' past 26 games, Goode, listed No. 1 at both the weak- and strong-side linebacker positions, and senior defensive back Terence Garvin, who led West Virginia in tackles last season, have emerged as leaders.
Coach Bill Stewart praised Goode and also gave credit to West Virginia's secondary.
"I thought guys are disguising well," he said. "Those guys are trying to confuse our quarterback, and they're doing a pretty good job."
But there is a lot of work to be done, coaches concede. And assistant head coach Steve Dunlap, who oversees the safeties, said the staff cannot teach schemes as quickly as it has in the past to so many young players.
"I tell the players, 'You decide what we do,' " he said. " 'If you can't execute A and B, we're sure not going to go to C.' We're just taking baby steps."
As for the pushing and shoving, coaches are not too concerned. Many, especially the defensive coaches, are encouraged by the intensity.
"As long as you're smart, as long as you're not taking cheap shots and stuff," Lockwood said. "The guys are going to compete and have fun. You've just got to be careful. ... You get into it when the whistle blows, then, when the coach gets on you, get out, stop and move on. The guys are out there having fun for the most part."
Stewart was glad to see his players "get after each other," especially since he viewed it as a sign of life from his team midway through spring practice. But, he jokingly cautioned, there are limits.
"That little pushing and shoving and fisticuffs, that hasn't appeared," he said. "I said 'If you guys want to fight at some period, let me know and I'll put in, instead of a break, a fight period, and we'll go out and box.' We can put boxing gloves on and full pads, and they can just have fun."
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1722.