STILLWATER — Reflecting over the phone, contemplating his new surroundings by the bank of the Monongahela River in northern West Virginia, Joe DeForest seems mostly pleased.
“It is such a neat place,” said DeForest, the former Oklahoma State assistant now in his first season in charge of the West Virginia defense. “A great area of the country.
“You know, the leaves change … It's really beautiful here.”
There is, however, one catch.
“If we could just play better defense,” he said, “it would be unbelievable.”
DeForest gave 11 good years to OSU, before joining Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia for a tag of defensive coordinator, a promotion he hoped would help prompt a continued climb up the ladder to a head coaching gig.
And that dream might eventually materialize, although for now, DeForest is solely focused on the difficult job at hand: fixing what's wrong with the Mountaineers. And there's much wrong on defense, as DeForest and West Virginia head for a Saturday showdown with Oklahoma State.
“That's our job as coaches, to try to figure out a way to make it work,” DeForest said. “Everybody's got their problems. OSU's had problems. Heck, three quarterbacks, losing all those receivers and cornerbacks and safeties … everybody's got problems during the year. You've just got to be able to overcome them.
“It's been taxing. But that's part of it.”
Associates report that DeForest wasn't in Morgantown long when he realized the challenge ahead. The Mountaineers lacked speed, at least on his side of the ball, a distressing reality considering the school's impending move to the Big 12 and its big-armed quarterbacks and score-a-minute offenses.
And it didn't take long for fears to be realized, with West Virginia surrendering 63 points — albeit in a wild win — in its Big 12 opener against Baylor. Since then, every league team has put at least 39 points on the Mountaineers, and their league average of points allowed is better than half-a-hundred, 50.2 to be exact.
Nationally, DeForest's crew ranks 116th in scoring defense, 120th — last among all FBS schools — in pass defense and 111th in total defense.
“It's part of moving to a different league and playing with guys who were in the Big East,” he said. “And that's not an excuse.
“We've just got to get better.”
DeForest said he believes the Mountaineers made a shift in the right direction a week ago, even though they lost 39-38 in double-overtime to TCU.
Leaving his familiar spot on the sideline, DeForest moved to the press box for the first time in his career against TCU. Seeing the field better, allowing him to more easily recognize and call adjustments, he said he thought the move was positive.
“Whether it's good, bad or indifferent, I don't know, but I just know that last week I called a better game,” he said. “Even though we lost, we played so much better, except for about five plays.”
Cowboys offensive coordinator Todd Monken agreed, guessing, too, that West Virginia's first bye week probably played a factor as well.
“It looked like they simplified things,” Monken said. “And their guys responded.”
Now DeForest brings his scuffling defense into Stillwater, where stopping the Cowboys isn't his only issue. Many memories were etched during those 11 years at OSU, where DeForest's daughter Ashley is a freshman and so many Cowboys were either his former players or recruits or co-workers.
“That's a long time,” DeForest said. “Every day I was thankful to be there. It was a great experience. It was awesome.
“I don't want to say it's going to be hard, it's just going to be different. There will be different feelings.”
There are no hard feelings, especially after DeForest served the Cowboys so well, handling the special teams and coaching defensive backs and plucking players out of the Houston area.
“Joe gave his lifeblood to this program for several years,” said OSU defensive coordinator Bill Young, who worked alongside DeForest the previous three years. “Nobody worked harder than Joe did. He left because he thought it might enhance his chances of getting a head coaching job. That's the only reason he left. He didn't leave because he wanted to leave. He wants to be a head coach.”
The climb to head coach isn't always easy. And in this offense-crazed period of the college game, defensive coaches aren't exactly the flavor of the day. Yet chances can be fleeting, leaving assistant coaches to jump when they can — or risk regretting a missed opportunity.
“I'm happy that Joe got an opportunity to go somewhere and be a coordinator,” Monken said. “I'm for people reaching and achieving their dreams. That's what he wanted, an opportunity.”
So DeForest, armed with a three-year contract, works to reshape the Mountaineers defense and recast his future.
Next stop: Stillwater.
“I'm excited about coming back,” DeForest said. “I'm excited about the next game on the schedule. We have to win to become bowl eligible, just like OSU.
“It's going to be bittersweet. I just want to go back and play well and, obviously, win.”