Some guys just have the worst luck, and that couldn’t be more true for now-retired redshirt junior linebacker Brendan Ferns.
Ferns was a huge get for former head coach Dana Holgorsen. In addition to being a life-long Mountaineer fan, he was a four-star, nationally-ranked prospect out of St. Clairsville High School in nearby St. Clairsville, Ohio. He was expected to compete for playing time as a true freshman in 2016 and was prophesied to become a defensive leader for the Old Gold and Blue.
Unfortunately, his freshman season was lost before it ever started when he tore his ACL in summer camp. He returned in 2017, but after participating in four forgetful games, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. In spring camp a year ago, he once again tore his ACL. Holgorsen said mid-way through the season that he and fellow injured linebacker Quondarius Qualls were “rehabbing their tails off” in order to come back for the home stretch of the regular season. Ultimately, he was used sparingly in low leverage situations, mainly on special teams.
Today, Ferns announced that he will retire due to medical reasons, and there is absolutely no shame in him doing so. If the old adage “once a Mountaineer, always a Mountaineer” stands for the players who transfer due to petty reasons, are dismissed or what else, then the same should count even more for Ferns. He gave his body, his blood, sweat and tears for the program, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Neal Brown keep him around the team this upcoming season.
Where do the Mountaineers go from here, though, at linebacker?
The million dollar question is what is defensive coordinator Vic Koenning looking for out of linebackers in his new 4-2-5 defensive scheme? The evolution and ubiquity of the run-pass option (RPO) has had a dramatically negative impact in recent years on the 4-2-5, and it’s the linebackers who are impacted the most. The reason why: it’s because they are asked to do so much and be so versatile, depending upon the type of offense they are going up against.
Against a Lincoln Riley-esque, up-tempo, air raid attack, the linebackers will be counted on the most to read the pass and drop into coverage. If they’re late or they guess run, tight ends or slot wide receivers are wide open over the middle with tons of room to run. Against a Matt Campbell-esque, slow-tempo, power, ground attack, the linebackers have to fill the holes and swallow a David Montgomery type running back around the line of scrimmage. If they’re late or they’re too concerned about the pass, huge chunks of easy yards will be given up and the defense will be worn out by game’s end from having to defend so many plays. Therefore, Koenning is in need of guys that are athletic enough to defend skill position players, yet bulked up enough to take on a season’s worth of carnage at the line of scrimmage.
Perfect. The Mountaineers need Luke Keuchly and Bobby Wagner.
Since we all know that’s pretty far out of the realm of possibility, it would make the most sense to see West Virginia use a rotation of backers who see playing time in certain game situations that match their best attributes and skill sets. The times when that will become difficult is when opponents go up-tempo and the Mountaineers aren’t allowed to substitute. Maybe all of the experience that the linebackers received in 2018 was a blessing after all?
Alabama transfer and redshirt sophomore Vandarius Cowan is the most intriguing player out of the group, given his size (6’4”, 235 lbs) and past history of being a four-star, top-75 player in the country in the class of 2017. He was in Koenning’s dog house this winter, but has reportedly been competing with the team this spring. One would imagine he is on the fast track toward seeing time. Dylan Tonkery, who started for the Mountaineers at the beginning of this season after finishing the 2017 season at safety, is another one to keep an eye on, as well as Charlie Benton, once he returns, following his ACL tear against Tennessee.
Hopefully they are challenged by Exree Loe, Zach Sandwisch, Shea Campbell, Adam Hensley and Josh Chandler, to name a few, because, if 2018 was any sort of indication, injuries happen, players wear down by the regular season’s end and conference championship-contending teams need depth.
Regardless, fans should see an added emphasis on the pass rush this season with four down defensive linemen. The Stills brothers wreaking havoc up front and a slew of pass rushers on the outside should help out the backers in getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, while also stopping the run. Therefore, it’s arguable that the linebackers won’t be as important in this new defense. If there’s any evidence of that already, it’s that Neal Brown went out and got a mammoth of a defensive lineman in his first few weeks on the job and is already after elite d-line prospects in the class of 2020. There is a turning of the tide, philosophically.
Where the linebackers will also receive help is in the secondary, potentially from converted linebacker Jovanni Stewart. Call it a bandit safety or whatever you want, but expect a player or two in the secondary, creeping up in the box, especially against the run. Jeff Casteel did it. Tony Gibson did it. Koenning will also. Stewart, or whoever is thrust into the role will need to be a thumper, while also defending the playmakers of the Big 12.
Maybe secondary coach Jahmile Addae can suit up once again for the Mountaineers.
April’s Spring Game should tell a lot as to what to expect in this new defense and what role the linebackers will play. For now, we play the waiting game.