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Who in the heck is Nick Kwiatkoski?

While SEC fan may know very little about West Virginia's undersized but dangerous middle linebacker, rest assured, Bama coaches and players are well aware of his exploits. Can the former safety with the hard-to-pronounce name lead the Mountaineer defense to new heights against Alabama?

Nick Kwiatkoski has quietly become the scariest defender on the WVU roster. Just ask the Longhorns.
Nick Kwiatkoski has quietly become the scariest defender on the WVU roster. Just ask the Longhorns.
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

While West Virginia has not been known as a defensive powerhouse in previous years, shunning dominating D for explosive (or supposedly explosive) offense, no one better tell Mountaineer linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (kwit-COW-skee) that. When the hard-nosed redshirt junior laces up his cleats on Saturdays, he's ready to dictate the game from the defensive side of the ball as one of the only star defenders on the WVU roster.

Who the Heck Is Nick Kwiatkoski?

Kwiatkoski, a product of Bethel Park High School in Bethel Park, PA, has been a steady hand guiding the Mountaineer defense over the last season. He's a tough, physical, driven linebacker who has excellent football IQ and is fearless in plugging running lanes. Kwiatkoski is the type of football player our own Coach Nick Saban favors: intelligent, disciplined, physical, aggressive and hard-working.

Big things are projected for him in 2014, as he moves from Will to Mike (after playing the Sam position in 2012) in the 3-3-5, a move that West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson thinks will maximize his skill set and leverage his previous experience. Kwiatkowski was a standout safety and wide receiver in high school, but it's the safety part of the equation that Gibson thinks will help the junior navigate the middle of WVU's 3-3-5 defense this season.

Kwiatkoski is somewhat smallish for a linebacker (at least by SEC standards), measuring in at 6'2" and 235 pounds, 20 pounds of which he's added since stepping on campus at WVU. From the Sam position, where he started all 10 games in which he played in 2013, Kwiatkoski was vicious against both the passing and running games of opposing teams in the high-octane Big 12. Watch the videos below and it's not hard for one to see that despite his safety-like frame and build, the junior hits like a runaway dump truck.

To compare him to former Bama linebackers would be unfair, but if one could hybridize former safety Vinny Sunseri and former linebacker Rolando McClain, the result would most likely fall on the Kwiatkoski spectrum. Many would liken former Bama linebacker/ safety hybrid Cory Reamer to Kwiatkoski, as their skill sets match up favorably. His three interceptions in 2013 indicate that he has the speed and agility to play well against the pass, but his John Lynch-like hitting ability has a tendency to send offensive players crumpling to the ground like so many cheap folding chairs.

In 2013, the business major and projected 12th ranked ILB prospect in the 2015 NFL draft made a name for himself as one of few bright spots on a Mountaineer defense that was bad at best. He was named to pundit Phil Steele's All-Big 12 second team at linebacker after leading the team in tackles (86) in only 10 games as the starter.

A year ago, Kwiatkoski ranked 6th in the Big 12 in solo tackles (30th in NCAA FBS), and fifth in the league in total tackles. The junior was second on the team in interceptions with three (along with three PBUs), once again demonstrating his prowess in defending against the particular, the short passing game.

Kwiatkoski has only gotten better with the move to the middle of the defense, as he is able to rove the middle of the field, dropping his shoulder and using his football acumen to anticipate play-calls and running lanes. He also has a penchant for getting his hands (and body) in passing lanes, disrupting the short-pass, fast-paced type of offense that the Mountaineers not only employ, but are accustomed to seeing in the Big 12.

In addition to his physical tools, Kwiatkoski is a coach's dream and team leader, as explained by former West Virginia 2013 defensive coordinator (and Kwiatkoski's position coach in 2012) Keith Patterson.

"He's one of those guys who does everything you ask him to do, and he doesn't deviate from it," said Patterson. "I've been very pleased with his approach every single day. What you see from him on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday is what you are going to see from him on Saturday."

It's no wonder that Kwiatkoski was named one of the team's captains after the conclusion of spring this year. West Virginia will count not only on his playing prowess, but his leadership, as the defense attempts to recover from the routine shelling the unit took during the 2013 season.

What We Can Expect From Kwiatkoski in the Bama Game

Kwiatkoski is a force with which the Tide offensive line, tight ends and fullbacks must reckon, quite simply. While Kwiatkoski is a standout defensive player in the Big 12, the Bama offense will deal with countless other players of his caliber (and better) while trudging through the meat of the SEC schedule this season. In a league of NFL linebacker prospects, what can Kwiatkoski show the Bama offense that they haven't already experienced first-hand?

He's neither the biggest, fastest nor strongest...but what the kid brings to the equation is grit and heart, two things members of the Alabama fan base know can produce outstanding dividends when properly applied. He can cause problems for struggling quarterbacks, attacking from anywhere on the field, and he can be quite disruptive in two main facets of the game: interrupting the short passing game and attacking the run.

On the first note, Kwiatkoski is agile and quick enough to span passing lanes quickly, closing quickly on poorly-thrown short routes, and keeping his hands up in hope of tipping the ball and disrupting the cadence of the passing game. He is nothing if not fundamentally sound. The Big 12 is a league of fast-paced offenses that feature the short-passing and screen games as proxy rushing attacks. Many have forecast that this is the kind of thing Bama will be doing more under the leadership of new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, and expect Kwiatkoski to make his presence known there if the Bama game plan falters or stalls.

Will either potential Bama QB be prepared to locate the cagey Kwiatkoski on passing plays? With three INTs last year and a history as a defensive back and wide receiver, Kwiatkoski has the hands and ability to make the Tide pay if the passing and execution on offense becomes sloppy, particularly in the slot and in the area just beyond the LOS and between the tackles.

Regarding the second point, the junior has the uncanny ability to anticipate the opposing running backs' breaks and he routinely puts himself in the correct gap to make a play. Who knows whether or not the undersized (by SEC standards) linebacker will be able to handle Bama's behemoth running backs once he latches on? But if the Mountaineers are going to have a chance of stuffing the Bama rushing attack, Kwiatkoski will need to be involved early and often.

While Bama fullback Jalston Fowler outweighs Kwiatkoski, has his blocking improved enough from an inconsistent 2013 to handle the linebacker's quickness? Will Bama's super-sized offensive linemen be able to snare the elusive Kwiatkoski and deflect him away from the action of the play? His pursuit speed is not elite, so if the Bama blockers can isolate Kwiatkoski and force him to hesitate, they will force the other, less-talented Mountaineer linebackers to step against Bama's elite offensive back field.

Regardless, watching an old-school, blue-collar, Rust Belt banger like Kwiatkoski engage in combat with SEC talent will be the battle within the battle. He's the kind of player defensive gurus enjoy watching, regardless of the color jersey he dons.

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