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Cowan, Bartlett bring experience at bandit

In West Virginia’s 3-4 hybrid defense, all bandits are linebackers, but not all linebackers are bandits.

It’s not exactly the transitive property (if A=B and B=C then A=C), but in explaining the bandit position, it is important to understand the concept.

As Neal Brown moves into his third season as WVU’s head coach, with Jordan Lesley now in year two as the Mountaineers’ defensive coordinator, it has become apparent that most of the young linebackers they bring into the program will first get an initial look at bandit, and after that will be moved around to the best position that ultimately fits them.

Here is a look at what West Virginia is dealing with at bandit heading into spring of 2021. We’ll look at the other linebacker spots — middle and weakside — in another article.

BANDIT LINEBACKER

Returning — VanDarius Cowan, Lanell Carr, Jared Bartlett, Eddie Watkins

Departing — Bryce Brand

Already Enrolled Newcomers — none

Scholarship Newcomer Enrolling In The Summer — Ja’Corey Hammett

Bryce Brand wasn’t much of a factor at bandit in his only season with the Mountaineers, playing in just two games. The former transfer from Maryland is on the move again, leaving West Virginia in search of more playing time at another college.

In addition, Dylan Tonkery has graduated, choosing not to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the NCAA that gives all 2020 fall student-athletes an additional season of eligibility. Instead the Bridgeport High grad is taking his WVU degree in energy land management and setting off on his career in the oil and gas industry.

Tonkery was a jack-of-all-trades linebacker for the Mountaineers, starting 14 career games at Mike and four at Will. When injuries necessitated, Tonkery also would move to the bandit, where he started four games in 2019 and five in 2020. Regardless of position, he had 122 tackles in his WVU career, including six and a half sacks.

The Mountaineers won’t be able to depend on Tonkery’s versatility in the future, so they need their bandits to stay healthy and on the field.

After recruiting to the position for a few years, Brown now is starting to assemble the depth necessary at the bandit, which requires both the pass rushing skills of a defensive end and also traditional linebacker instincts.

Along with Tonkery, VanDarius Cowan (6-4, 240 lbs., Jr.) and Jared Bartlett (6-2, 232 lbs., RFr.) saw most of the game action last season at the bandit.

After transferring from Alabama to WVU in the summer of 2018, and sitting that fall because of the NCAA’s rule at the time limiting immediate eligibility for traditional transfers, Cowan has seen game action in each of the past two seasons, but injuries have forced him to the sideline for extended stretches both years. The Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, native played in two games in 2019 before injuring a knee and missing the rest of the campaign. Last season he started the first two games of the season but suffered another leg injury, which forced him out of action for the next six contests. He did eventually return, playing in WVU’s final two games of 2020, including a start in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

With six total games of action at WVU, Cowan has recorded 17 tackles, 4.5 TFLs and two sacks in his truncated Mountaineer career. A four-star recruit coming out of high school, Cowan has the size and athleticism it takes to succeed at the bandit position, but he’s been able to play so little over the past few years, it’s been impossible to judge if he also has the tenacity and instincts it takes to be a top-flight bandit. He still has to prove himself, but to do so, he first just has to stay healthy.

Along with Tonkery, Bartlett handled most of the game action at the bandit when Cowan was out this past season with his injury.

Born in Miami, Bartlett attended Collins Hill (Ga.) High School, which is just northeast of Atlanta. He saw playing time in four games as a true freshman in 2019, recording nine tackles. He stayed within the NCAA limit for redshirting that season, and he didn’t use a season of eligibility in 2020, because of another NCAA caveat, despite playing in all 10 games and starting two of them. He finished the season with 19 tackles, 5.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks. His best outing came in WVU’s 37-10 win over Kansas State, when he had five tackles, a TFL and a sack.

Cowan and Bartlett give the Mountaineers a pair of bandits who have game experience and at times have shown they can make plays. To have the necessary depth, WVU needs to find at least one more bandit capable of making plays at that key position. West Virginia does have numerous options in its search for someone to fill that role.

Lanell Carr (6-2, 240 lbs., Fr.) and Eddie Watkins (6-4, 240 lbs., Fr.) were members of West Virginia’s class of 2020 who spent last fall on the Mountaineer football team. Both arrived labeled as bandits.

Carr, a product of De Smet Jesuit High School in St. Louis, Missouri, saw the most game action of that trio of young bandits, playing in seven games, recording one tackle along the way. Most of his playing time came on special teams.

Watkins, who is a native of Evergreen, Alabama, did not see any game action last season.

Like the quote at the top of this story, all bandits are linebackers but not all linebackers are bandits. So, while players like Carr and Watkins could stay at bandit, either of them could move to another position as well, likely mike or will linebacker, though potentially even defensive end or even defensive tackle if they get big enough and strong enough.

One former bandit recently made such a change, as Taurus Simmons (6-1, 242 lbs., Fr.), who spent the fall at bandit, has moved to defensive end this spring.

Ja’Corey Hammett (6-2, 205 lbs., Fr.), who was the only class of 2021 linebacker WVU signed during the December early commitment period, also is expected to start his Mountaineer career at bandit.

An outside linebacker at powerhouse Northwestern High School in Miami, which won three straight Class 5A state championships from 2017-19, Hammett played in just one game in 2020 before suffering a season-ending injury. He did have 11 sacks and 63 tackles as a junior. At one point Hammett had committed to the hometown Hurricanes, but then began looking around again. The three-star prospect had plenty of offers from schools like WVU, Arkansas, Florida State, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Nebraska, Pitt and others, eventually picking the Mountaineers.

Like others, Hammett could stay at bandit or move to another spot. With five prospects for that one position, West Virginia hopes to find a few who can be playmakers.

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