West Virginia is looking for playmakers on defense after the unit took a major step back in 2017.
The Mountaineers were the No. 96 defense in the country in S&P+ last season. To compare, they were No. 37 in 2016 and No. 28 in 2015. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson needs players to step up in order to get his group back to its typical level.
Fortunately for West Virginia, it has quite a few talented pieces returning next season who are poised to take the next step in their development. Here are three players who could be ready for breakout campaigns in 2018.
Ezekiel Rose – Defensive end, senior
One could argue Ezekiel Rose’s breakout season was actually in 2017. He had 5 sacks and an interception as a junior, playing so well that he eventually replaced Adam Shuler in the starting lineup late in the year.
In 2018, the Mountaineers will need more from him. Shuler has left the program, and West Virginia is thin along the defensive line. Rose has already proven he can be a force as a pass rusher. If he continues to develop, he could be in for a excellent senior campaign.
Dante Stills – Defensive end, freshman
The No. 1 recruit in West Virginia’s 2018 recruiting class should get a chance to make an impact early because of those depth issues on the defensive line. Four-star defensive end Dante Stills already has the size (6-foot-4, 265 pounds) to harass offensive linemen throughout the Big 12.
If Stills can compete for a starting spot, or even just become a consistent part of the rotation, the Mountaineers defense could improve significantly. The combination of Stills, Rose and nose tackle Lamonte McDougle could be terrifying for opposing offenses.
Kenny Robinson – Safety, sophomore
The departure of Kyzir White creates a need for a playmaker in the secondary. Rising sophomore Kenny Robinson could fill that role. He flashed potential as a freshman in 2017, making 46 tackles and grabbing 3 interceptions. He’ll have the opportunity to build on that campaign as he gets more opportunities to make big plays this season.
In the pass-happy Big 12, safeties who can cover great athletes in space are one of the most important assets a defense can have. Robinson can be that, patrolling the middle of the field at free safety, batting down passes and grabbing interceptions. Expect big things from him in 2018.
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