WVU senior Kwiatkoski ready to switch to original LB role
Whether called upon as “Sam,” “Mike” or “Will,” West Virginia redshirt senior Nick Kwiatkoski answers.
In his final time through spring practices, Kwiatkoski, a Bethel Park grad, has re-familiarized himself with the strong-side linebacker's responsibilities in the Mountaineers' 3-3-5 defense.
He led West Virginia in tackles as the starting middle linebacker in 2014 and earned second-team All-Big 12 Conference honors in 2013 as the weak-side starter.
But barring a drastic change in plans, Kwiatkoski will spend his final fall at the same position he occupied as a backup in 2012.
“With Sam, there's a little more coverage, but other than that, it's linebacker,” Kwiatkoski said. “At Mike, I kind of had to know all three of them. So, the transition has been smooth.”
Kwiatkowski's move came as no surprise to the Mountaineers with the return of redshirt senior Jared Barber to the lineup — the third-year starter sat out the 2014 season as he recovered from an ACL tear. Not even after he registered 103 tackles, including team-highs in solo stops (71) and tackles for a loss (11.5), did Kwiatkoski suspect he would remain the man in the middle.
“Coach called me up and asked if it was all right, and I said it was fine,” Kwiatkoski said. “I don't mind at all. I like Sam a lot. Jared played (in the middle) freshman year, so he kind of had it down.”
Fortunately for Kwiatkoski, there's stability in the defensive system, something the Mountaineers lacked before defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Tony Gibson arrived in 2014.
Gibson guided West Virginia as it went from 101st in total defense (445 ypg) in 2013 to 56th (388.6) a season ago.
There's considerable optimism that the Mountaineers, who lost just one starter on defense, will fare even better this fall.
Results from West Virginia's first public spring practice, held April 4 at Shepherd University, seemed to affirm as much — the first-team offense, starting at the opponent's 30-yard line, scored just once in six series against the starting defense.
“Our defense should be ahead right now,” coach Dana Holgorsen said. “For one, they've got 15 or 16 guys who have played a lot of football.
“Then just the nature of spring practice — defense is usually always ahead of the offense, and it should be that way. I'm satisfied with that.”
But the second public practice, held Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium, set a different tone. Just hours after Holgorsen spoke with media, the first-team offense scored on its first play from scrimmage and moved the ball without much resistance throughout the session.
Gibson, critical of his defense after the performance, offered only praise when asked about Kwiatkoski.
“Those two kids, Barber and (Kwiatkoski), I think right now are playing as well anybody we have on our team,” Gibson said. “They're just solid players. They understand the scheme. They like playing physical and downhill, so they're a great fit for what we do.”
Of Kwiatkoski in particular, Gibson added: “He's going to be in space a lot more. He's not protected on both sides. He's adjusting to that, and really it goes back to where he started.”
And by started, Gibson meant high school, where Kwiatkoski — then 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds — played running back and safety for Bethel Park.
The mention of his days as a Black Hawk brought a smile to Kwiatkoski's face.
“I miss those days,” he said. “That was about 30 pounds ago.”