Despite how excited he is about taking over West Virginia’s defense, Tony Gibson isn’t looking to reinvent things. He’s sticking with the Mountaineers’ 3-4 defense and terminology because, no matter what, his players need consistency.
Gibson is the fourth defensive coordinator at WVU in four years, following Jeff Casteel, Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson, who left this month for Arizona State. Now it’s time for Gibson, WVU’s safeties coach in 2013, to right the ship and fix a defense that ranked ninth in the Big 12 in scoring and total defense.
Before West Virginia begins spring practice on Sunday, Gibson took time to chat with ESPN.com about his new role and what he intends to change.
You’re 41 years old, but you’ve been in this business a while, haven’t you?
Gibson: This is Year 20, so as soon as I got done playing, I started right off the bat coaching. It’s been good for me; learned from a lot of great coaches I’ve been around, and [to have] the opportunity to be the defensive coordinator at West Virginia, I’m ecstatic about it and very excited and ready to get spring ball started.
I know you worked with Keith Patterson at Pittsburgh and I’m sure you knew he and Todd Graham were close, but were you surprised by his decision to leave?
Gibson: Yeah, a little bit. I don’t know the whole story or what played into it, but guys gotta do what they’ve gotta do in this coaching profession. I guess it was time for him to move on, and it opened up a window for me, so that’s a good thing, I guess.
I’m sure your safeties were excited, but how did the rest of the players take the news that you’re running the defense?
Gibson: They were real excited. Coach [Dana] Holgorsen told the defense a few weeks ago and those guys were really good. And, you know, when coach Patterson left, I wanted to see where the mindset of the linebackers were at that time and talked to them and the defensive line and the DBs. The kids were fine and they said, ‘Hey, coach, we’re good to go. Who’s it going to be at coordinator?’ At that time nobody knew, and I got a lot of support. The kids were asking if I had a shot to get it. We talked about it a little bit and it made me feel good as a coach that they had full trust in coach Holgorsen to hire the right guy.
So players were definitely encouraging you to go for this job?
Gibson: Oh yeah, no doubt. That was one of the first things a couple of them said to me that day when he announced that coach Patterson left. It makes you feel good as a coach to know that hopefully you’re doing things the right way when the kids support you and are asking, ‘Hey, are you going to get it? We want you to be the guy.’ That made me feel really good as a coach.
You’ve said you’re not looking to change things a whole lot in how you guys operate that defense. How important is that continuity?
Gibson: It’s very big. Our kids have learned the system and I’m the fourth coordinator in four years. The No. 1 thing we want to make sure we do is have continuity with those guys and make sure that they trust in what’s going on. We’re going to keep the terminology the same for the kids.
Do you see any effects of that constant change in leadership?
Gibson: Kids are resilient. They’re going to bounce back. These kids are hungry and a little embarrassed of what happened a year ago. They’re working hard right now and I think they’re ready to get rolling on spring ball, and I think they’re excited about it.
Now that you’re in charge, how would you diagnose the defense’s issues of 2013? How much did injuries limit this unit’s potential?
Gibson: I could feel and see the vibe you were getting from the kids early in the year, especially after the win against Oklahoma State; you could see our kids starting to get confidence on defense. And then the Baylor game, obviously, we all know what happened there. And then the injuries started and our kids’ confidence, moving guys around week to week, trying to fill holes and get our best 11 guys, it got very difficult for the players, for the staff, for everybody just trying to fix it and put a Band-Aid on it. It got out of control as far as injuries go, and their confidence was lost a little bit.
One week a guy like [freshman] Daryl Worley played three, four, five different spots during the season. We started moving Karl Joseph around. Your guys that you have in spots you’re really counting on, you start moving them and now it’s a new position to learn in three or four days. It’s difficult and hard.
Any players you’re excited about that the rest of the Big 12 will find out about quickly this fall?
Gibson: A kid like Daryl Worley, with the miles we got out of Daryl as a freshman in this league; he played big in a lot of games. We left him on an island a lot last year late in the season and he started playing with a tremendous amount of confidence. He’s just a kid that sticks out in my mind. His work ethic and all the things you need to be a great player, he possesses right now. He’s not where he wants to be, but I can see that kid being a big-time player for us in the future.
Did you have battles with new associate head coach Tom Bradley when recruiting the state of Pennsylvania?
Gibson: Yeah, Tom and I met and recruited against each other for probably the last 15 years. We would recruit some of the same kids. Him and I have always stayed in touch, and when we had this opportunity come open, Dana and I talked and we called Tom up and said "hey." He’s been very helpful and I think he can bring so much to us.
You recruited Dravon Henry, a ESPN 300 athlete, for this class. What can he do for your defense?
Gibson: He’s very versatile. He can play corner or safety. We’re going to start him out at corner and try to get him in a spot where he can have success early and all that. We tell kids all the time, especially DBs in this league: There’s two kinds of DBs – those who get exposed and those who get drafted. You’re going to get challenged every week in this league. But he’s a kid who is going to work and get himself right and come in here and compete right off the bat.
Has Dana taught you to embrace Red Bulls, or was that already a part of your lifestyle?
Gibson: Nah, I drink 'em every once in a while, maybe on game day or if I’m feeling tired going out to a practice. But yeah, we have some around.
Last question: In your opinion, when you survey this program, what’s it going to take to get West Virginia back to competing for a Big 12 title?
Gibson: Well, what we have to do as a defensive staff, the one thing we looked at going into the offseason – and if you just look at our games – first we need to learn how to finish. So many times, if we could’ve just finished in the fourth quarter when we had the lead, we would’ve won nine games. We had double-digit leads in a few of those games and ended up finding a way to give it away in the end. Not taking anything away from the teams we played, because every team we played in the Big 12 can compete with anyone in the country. But our kids need to learn how to finish and play with confidence, and we’ve got to eliminate big plays on defense -- no one-play drives or big passes and big runs.