West Virginia unbeaten thanks to ... defense; Texas A&M has found star in Christian Kirk
West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson's cellphone kept ringing all spring, as coaches wanted to know how he stymied Baylor's high-octane offense last season. In the Mountaineers' 41-27 victory over the Bears last October, Gibson's blitz-heavy scheme held Baylor to 318 yards of total offense, its lowest total since 2010. As it turns out, Gibson's 3-3-5 defense is more than just a one-game wonder.
For the first time in fifth-year West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen's tenure, there is more hype about his team's aggressive defense than its prolific pass-happy spread offense. Entering Saturday's game at 15th-ranked Oklahoma, the No. 23 Mountaineers are ranked first in the FBS in scoring defense (7.7 points per game) and third in turnovers gained (11).
The stark turnaround is garnering plenty of attention for the 42-year-old Gibson, who could be in the mix for coveted defensive coordinator jobs and maybe even some head-coaching gigs after the 2015 season. "Nobody cares about defense," Gibson tells The Inside Read with a laugh, "until you can't play it."
Before last season West Virginia's defense seemed to be an afterthought under Holgorsen. That was, until he promoted Gibson to his current position from safeties coach. The result was the Mountaineers finishing 66th in the FBS in total defense, which was instrumental in their 7-6 record last season. That was an improvement of 35 spots from 2013, when they finished last in the Big 12 in total defense and had a disappointing 4-8 record.
When Gibson took over, he immediately challenged his unit. "We need to change," Gibson recalls telling his players. "We can't just stay and keep doing what we've been doing. We need to change it and we need to change it now."
It has taken some time for Gibson's players to adjust to the 3-3-5 scheme he implemented last season. He was still fine-tuning it in preseason camp last month, but credits his unit for believing in it. Gibson also traces West Virginia's defensive success this season to its experience and depth. The Mountaineers have 16 defensive players who have started a Big 12 game. "We're deeper than we've ever been," Gibson says. "I could play seven or eight linebackers right now and not even blink."
That's a big difference from when West Virginia joined the Big 12 four years ago. "We took a beating on defense with a bunch of young kids," Gibson says. "Those are the same guys that are basically playing now. It's a little bit of redemption."
It's also helped that Gibson's defense has embraced a selfless attitude. "They don't care who makes the play," Gibson says, "just make it."
Hard-hitting senior safety Karl Joseph has been West Virginia's playmaker this season; he has four interceptions and is tied for first nationally in interceptions per game (1.3). He has endured the Mountaineers' growing pains defensively, having started every game since the program joined the Big 12. "He wants every repetition that he takes to be perfect and he's going to work to get it that way," Gibson says. "He wants to be flawless. He wants to be great. He wants this defense to be great. He wants this program to be great. He's just a special kid."
Another staple for Gibson has been redshirt senior cornerback Terrell Chestnut, who has been at West Virginia so long that he was on the Mountaineers' Big East championship team in Holgorsen's debut season in 2011. He has battled injuries throughout his career and already graduated, but turned in one of his best games in his team's 45-6 dismantling of Maryland last Saturday, when he had a forced fumble and an interception .
Besides slowing down Baylor's explosive offense, West Virginia also held TCU's high-flying unit to its fewest yards in a game last season (389) in a 31-30 loss. But Gibson acknowledges that his defense didn't finish down the stretch last year, solely placing the blame on his unit for losses like a 45-37 defeat to Texas A&M in the Liberty Bowl.
That's why for all Mountaineers' defensive success statistically, Gibson doesn't discuss numbers after games. "All we talk about is winning," Gibson says. "That's it. I could care less how many yards, all that stuff. We just need to need score more points than the other team does and get stops when we need to get stops."
And contrary to what some might think, Holgorsen actually likes defense, according to Gibson. "He's involved with it," Gibson says. "He loves to see us blitz. He's our biggest fan on game day. He's juiced up over there, high-fiving guys."
Gibson has perspective on West Virginia's defense from his previous stint as the program's defensive backs coach from 2001-07 under Rich Rodriguez. Back then, the Mountaineers had offensive stars such as Pat White, Steve Slaton and Noel Devine.
"The defense was always overshadowed by our offense," Gibson says.
But not anymore, now that West Virginia can finally play defense.
Texas A&M has a star in freshman WR Christian Kirk
Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital tried his best not to put too much pressure on freshman wide receiver Christian Kirk. But as the 5' 11", 200-pound speedster's explosiveness on the field and dedication off it became more apparent since he enrolled in January, Spavital had a harder time containing his excitement about the newcomer.
"He was playing at such a consistent level, you kind of treated him like a veteran because he just knew how to do everything," Spavital tells The Inside Read.
There's no hiding it now, as Kirk has emerged as not only the most tantalizing freshman in the country, but also one of college football's most dangerous playmakers less than a month into his collegiate career. He proved that once again Saturday with his game-winning 20-yard touchdown catch in Texas A&M's 28-21 overtime victory over Arkansas, a game in which he had a career-high 255 all-purpose yards with two touchdowns.
Entering No. 14 Texas A&M's home game Saturday against 21st-ranked Mississippi State, he ranks first in the SEC in receiving yards (442), and second in receptions (24) and touchdown catches (four). He is also one of the conference's most feared return men.
That versatility is why Spavital was so insistent that Texas A&M had to land the Scottsdale, Ariz., product. "He's everything that we thought he would be," Spavital says. "He's electric now. He's got the breakaway speed and the body of a running back. He's thick and can take some hits for sure."
Kirk proved he could play from the start, racking up 224 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in Texas A&M's season-opening 38-17 rout of Arizona State on Sept. 5. One of those scores was a 79-yard punt return. "The lights aren't too bright for him," Spavital says. "He acts like he's a veteran right now."
Beyond Kirk's physical talent, the 18-year-old is wise beyond his years in his preparation, according to Spavital. Besides putting in extra work in the weight room, he studies film relentlessly. When Spavital watched film this past spring, Kirk was right there with him. This summer Spavital got used to finding Kirk alone watching film. Other times Spavital would turn on a computer in advance of summer meetings with his quarterbacks to find cut-ups that Kirk had been watching. "He's not one of these kids that's going to come up in the office and turn the tape on so everybody sees him watching it," Spavital says. "He's that kid who's going to do it on his own because he wants to get better."
It's routine for Kirk to watch 100 clips of film a day from Texas A&M's extensive library that includes footage from NFL teams to other major college programs. He focused on studying his position initially, but ended up teaching himself all of Texas A&M's other offensive positions as well.
"The focus that he has is pretty impressive," Spavital says. "He wants to learn everything."
And the scary part for opponents is Kirk's role in Texas A&M's offense will only keep expanding, according to Spavital.
"There's going to be a lot of alerts for where he's at on the field," Spavital says. "That's just what he brings. When you have guys like that, it's going to open opportunities for other people."
That's even more reason for Spavital to be excited.
East Carolina finding new ways to win games
After East Carolina's rain-soaked 35-28 victory over Virginia Tech last Saturday, first-year Pirates offensive coordinator Dave Nichol received a joshing text message that made him laugh. "That wasn't Air Raid at all," the message read.
A disciple of the high-powered, pass-heavy offense, Nichol largely abandoned it in Saturday's triumph, relying on the legs of backup quarterback James Summers, who rushed for a game-high 169 yards on 21 carries to go with two touchdowns.
"I've not done that a ton," Nichols told The Inside Read. "But we'll do whatever it takes to win."
Behind Summers's gutsy performance, East Carolina (2-2) has now beaten Virginia Tech in two straight years. Sixth-year Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill has won five consecutive games against ACC opponents.
"You could argue most of them never even have heard of most of our players coming out of high school," Nichol says. "For our kids to do that, it's pretty awesome."
The 6' 3", 210-pound Summers was supposed to be the change-of-pace option against Virginia Tech, but East Carolina stuck with him instead of starter Blake Kemp beginning in the second quarter. When Summers entered the game, Nichols planned to run him some because it gave his offense an extra blocker against Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster's aggressive unit.
Last Saturday's driving rain only made Nichol use that option even more, especially once it started working early. His offense finished with 182 rushing yards, 107 more than in last year's 28-21 win at Virginia Tech. "We were just trying come up with a few different things to do," Nichol says.
Summers was also 5 of 8 passing for 110 yards with a touchdown in Saturday's win. The junior college transfer arrived late in preseason camp and was supposed to play wide receiver, even though he had been a star dual-threat and state championship-winning quarterback at Page High in Greensboro, N.C. But the former North Carolina signee was moved to quarterback late last month after starting signal-caller Kurt Benkert suffered a season-ending knee injury less than two weeks before East Carolina's opener.
On top of that, this season is Nichol's debut as a play-caller after succeeding highly regarded Lincoln Riley, who left to become Oklahoma's offensive coordinator after last season. A former receiver and staffer at Texas Tech for then-Red Raiders coach Mike Leach, Nichol has also worked under Baylor coach Art Briles and coached wide receivers at Arizona when Sonny Dykes was the Wildcats' offensive coordinator.
Nichol has been at East Carolina since 2012 and admits he anticipated running the ball more this season because of the Pirates' experience on the offensive line. He just didn't think it'd be with the quarterback so much.
"This is fun," Nichol says. "I'm comfortable doing it."
Nichols anticipates playing Summers and Kemp the rest of the season. He says Summers is a capable passer, but wasn't able to show it as much because of Saturday's weather.
In the meantime, Nichols is looking forward to getting more texts about his offense that could still make East Carolina a contender in the AAC with its favorable schedule. Maybe next time they'll be about eye-popping passing statistics.
"That'd be cool," Nichols says with a laugh. "I'd take those too."
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