MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Nick Kwiatkoski tends to fly under the radar, but this Bethel Park native has been hard to miss lately.
A first-year starter at middle linebacker, this redshirt sophomore has led West Virginia (2-1) in tackles each of its first three games this fall. His team-leading 27 leave him just one short of his 2012 season total.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen named Kwiatkoski the Mountaineers' defensive champion Saturday after he had nine tackles, a 10-yard sack and a forced fumble in West Virginia's 41-7 win against Georgia State.
"He's developing, and he's as healthy as he's ever been," Holgorsen said. "He's a smart guy and is allowing himself to be coached. There's a mental aspect to the game of football that you have to be able to understand, and, right now, he really understands it."
Kwiatkoski is not a household name -- perhaps due to its pronunciation (quit-a-COW-skee) -- but he is making his mark. In the corner of the Mountaineers team meeting room is a whiteboard on which each player in the defensive corps has been assigned a grade -- a number based on 19 categories of defensive performance, from "big hit" to "missed tackle" and even to "loafing."
Kwiatkoski sits atop the chart with 60 total points, a full 10 more than any other defender, and with a play grade of 91 percent.
"It's definitely something I pride myself on," Kwiatkoski said, gesturing toward the board. "I hope it stays that way."
A safety and wide receiver for Bethel Park, Kwiatkoski credited coach Jeff Metheny and his staff for building a college-ready culture at Bethel Park by prioritizing film study, technique and attention to detail.
"Great coaches there," Kwiatkoski said of his high school. "They try to bring a lot from the college level back to the program."
It was Metheny who first got West Virginia and former defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel to take a look at Kwiatkoski. The Mountaineers invited Kwiatkoski to a camp, and two days later he had a scholarship offer, his first.
Late interest came from Boston College and a few Mid-American Conference schools, Kwiatkoski said, but Pitt, his hometown school, never offered.
"They said they would, bounced back and forth, then they ended up not giving it to me," Kwiatkoski said of Pitt. "I wasn't really that disappointed, but sometimes I wish I'd have gotten offered."
Kwiatkoski isn't the same player today that Pitt or West Virginia or anyone saw three years ago with the Black Hawks. The intensity and sure-handed tackling are the same, but with the transition from "bandit" safety to middle linebacker, Kwiatkoski has added 20 pounds, a new number (35) and plenty of scrapes and bruises.
Kwiatkoski walked into the team room Tuesday with a bandage on his right arm and a blackened fingernail on his left thumb.
"He's one of those guys that just does everything I ask him to do, and he doesn't deviate from it. He's just rock-solid in his approach every single day," defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "What you see from him on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday is going to be what you see from him on Saturday."
He and the Mountaineers, allowing just 13.3 points per game this season, will be tested severely Saturday by a dynamic Maryland offense at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Kwiatkoski admitted that moving from safety to linebacker has not been easy, particularly in redoing his approach to the running game. In the spring, in his first days at linebacker, he found himself naturally floating outside toward the nearest receiver.
"When I first made the transition, I did do that, which caught me sometimes," Kwiatkoski said. "I'd be running out to cover, and they'd run the ball right up the middle. That was something I did have to change."
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.