West Virginia lost its leading tackler from a year ago to the NFL, MIKE linebacker Tony Fields. Good news for the Mountaineers — they have a very capable guy taking over Fields’ role in Josh Chandler-Semedo. WVU currently has six linebackers on its roster, only two, including Chandler-Semedo, are veterans with starting experience.
“We need speed first. We need athleticism and we need physicality,” linebackers coach Jeff Koonz said. “If you have those three things, you can play either position. You try and build that with what you have by developing them and cross-training. That was no different than at previous schools I’ve been at my entire career. I’ve never had the ability to be able to do that and say, ‘Hey, these are my guys inside and these are my guys outside.’ You always try and get the best 11 on the field.”
The Mountaineers may be a little slim at linebacker, leading to the dual-training, but they do have four players at the bandit position, and two of them have starting experience.
Let’s take a closer look at the linebackers and bandits as we continue our roster review series:
Josh Chandler-Semedo — senior
Over the past three seasons, Josh Chandler-Semedo has solidified himself as a key part of West Virginia’s defense. As a senior, his role will be increasing even more as he takes over at mike linebacker. The bulk of his starts over the past three seasons have come at will linebacker, but he does have experience at MIKE, including filling in for Fields in the Liberty Bowl.
“I’ve been here for three years, started on the defense for two years, so I’m pretty comfortable rotating around. I know both positions, I’m extremely comfortable,” Chandler-Semedo said. “I’m being dual trained by Coach Koonz. We’ve had a lot of work in the off-season. All year last year, I was the backup mike, as well. I’m extremely comfortable at both spots.”
Most of his reps this spring season have come at that position, and the last time he played in a game in that spot, well, I don’t know if there could have been a better outcome. Chandler-Semedo had a team-high 13 total tackles, including 10 solo, one tackle for loss, one forced fumble, and his interception with 29 seconds left sealed the 3-point win over Army. That earned him the title of the bowl’s MVP and a spot on the USA Today and Associated Press All-Bowl Team.
Coach Brown said this spring Chandler-Semedo has gotten leaner and faster, and he’s picked up right where he left off in the bowl game. That’s given him confidence that he carried over into the spring, and hopefully into the upcoming season.
“Josh is really maturing this semester. He’s growing into a leadership role and figuring out what it means to be a leader, what it means to set the standard every single day,” Brown said in April.
As a sophomore, he earned a spot in the starting lineup and finished as WVU’s second-leading tackler. Due to a knee injury, he played in six games in 2020 and was No. 3 on the team in tackles.
VanDarius Cowan (bandit) — redshirt senior
After playing his freshman season at Alabama, Cowan transferred to West Virginia in the summer of 2018. He played in games at bandit for the Mountaineers in 2019 before sustaining a season-ending knee injury against Iowa State. He made two tackles that game. Cowan started the first two games last season before suffering another injury — he tallied six tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble during that span. He made his return at Iowa State and record a season-high nine tackles in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. He was named one of the most improved players this spring.
Exree Loe — redshirt senior
Loe redshirted in 2017 and was primarily used on special teams through 11 games in 2018. The following season, he appeared in 12 games including three starts. That year, he amassed 40 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, two passed defended and a fumble recovery.
In 2020, Loe started one game at WILL linebacker in place of an injured Chandler-Semedo. That showing saw a career-high 12 tackles and a TFL. He also performed well in Lubbock as eight of his nine tackles were solo stops vs. the Red Raiders.
Jared Bartlett (bandit) — redshirt sophomore
Bartlett redshirted in 2019 and saw action in the final four games of the year, tallying nine total tackles. He played in every game last season and made his first career start against Kansas. 11 of his 19 total tackles were solo stops and he recorded 5.5 TFLs. His 3.5 sacks tied with Darius Stills for No. 2 on the team. He also finished with a pass breakup and forced fumble.
Devell Washington — redshirt freshman
Washington made the switch from wide receiver to linebacker this spring. Coach Brown said Washington met with the coaching staff and said he would like to give it a go at WILL linebacker. The redshirt freshman does have defensive experience, but it came at the high school level playing free safety. Coach Brown said Washington’s body has changed so much since high school and that will give him the ability to help the Mountaineers. While the coaching staff was experimenting with players at different positions this spring, the move for Washington is more concrete.
“I think this will stick. I think he has real potential at that position especially because of how we use them playing outside the box so much. His length — if we were going to go recruit a WILL linebacker, it would look like Devell, honestly,” Brown said in April. “He’s 6-2, 212-215 pounds, could be 225 and still move at the same ability. Everything is new for him because he played safety and didn’t play as much on defense but I do think he has a high ceiling.”
Position coach Jeff Koonz had this to say of Washington this spring: “I’m excited about Devell coming into our room/ He’s got a skill set that matches the skill set for that position. I believe he came in day five or day six of spring ball, so we had 80% of our installation in on defense. He’s got a lot of scheme, alignment, and job responsibility things he’s trying to catch up on right now.”
Washington saw some increased reps at the position this spring due to Exree Loe missing practice due to a non-COVID illness.
Lance Dixon — redshirt freshman
Dixon joins the Mountaineers after two seasons at Penn State. As a true freshman in 2019, he played in three games for the Nittany Lions. Last season, he made nine appearances including one start. he finished with 10 total tackles, seven solo stops, 2.5 TFLs and a forced fumble.
Jairo Faverus — redshirt freshman
Faverus is a converted DB, he played at cornerback last season for the Mountaineers. He appeared in four games last season and tallied two tackles. Coach Brown said this spring Favors’ body has grown into that position. He joins the growing list of international players for the Mountaineers — he came to WVU from the Netherlands.
James Thomas — redshirt freshman
He saw action in four games last season. After the first full-pads spring practice on April 1, Coach Brown said Thomas stood out with some good tackles. Thomas is a jack of all trades as he played quarterback, safety and kicker at Mitchell County High in Georgia.
Eddie Watkins Jr. (bandit) — redshirt freshman
He didn’t see game action last season. He played outside LB and DE at Hillcrest High. In 2019, he was named to the 4A Alabama Sports Writers Association All-State First Team and helped take Hillcrest to second round of the Alabama 4A state playoffs. He finished with 66 tackles and 10 sacks as a senior.
Watkins Jr. definitely brings the energy — he earned the juice award once last season and earned that title again this spring.
Drew Joseph — redshirt sophomore
The South Charleston native enrolled at WVU in January of 2019 and redshirted that season. He was man ed the scout team champion vs. Kansas. He played in the season opener last season.
He finished his high school career as South Charleston’s all-time leading tackler. He amasses 100 tackles or more in each of his four seasons. His senior season saw 158, including 101 solo, one sack and seven TFLs.
Ja’Corey Hammett (bandit) — freshman
Football runs in the family of the newest Mountaineer at the position. His cousin is Teddy Bridgewater, quarterback for the Denver Broncos. Much like Cowan, Hammett is also coming off an injury, he sustained it in the first game of his final season at Miami Northwestern High. He played outside linebacker and weak-side DE. In 2019, he helped lead Northwestern to its third consecutive FHSAA Class 5A State Championship. He tallied 63 tackles and 11 sacks that season.
Jax McCauley — redshirt freshman
Adds depth at the position.
Tony Fields started all but the season-opener at mike linebacker last season. In his first and only season with the program, he amassed a team-high 88 tackles. The closest to him was Alonzo Addae with 66. Fields also tallied four TFLs, one sack, an interception, and four QB hurries. He was named the Big 12 Conference Newcomer of the Year. He was selected No. 153 overall by the Cleveland Browns.
Dylan Tonkery has been a veteran presence on defense over the past few seasons. The Bridgeport native started 28 of the 41 career games he played in. He saw 120 total tackles, 17.5 TFLs, and 6.5 sacks during that span. In 2020, he saw his first career pick-six.
Jake Abbott also added depth at the position. The Fairmont native played in 24 games over three seasons with the program.