In Tony Gibson’s third year as defensive coordinator last season, the defensive secondary exceeded expectations without a key piece. After losing safety Dravon Askew-Henry in preseason camp last year, the Mountaineers found success led by cornerback Rasul Douglas, who led the Big 12 and the country with eight interceptions. Now with Douglas finding a new home in the NFL, the Mountaineers search for a new leader in the defensive secondary.
Coming into his redshirt-junior year, Askew-Henry assumes the role of leader to the WVU secondary. Up until Askew-Henry’s season-ending injury around this time last year, the safety had started every game of his WVU career. In 26 starts, the Pennsylvania native accounted for 83 tackles to go along with three interceptions in his first two seasons in Morgantown. Askew-Henry will be in his familiar free safety spot in Gibson’s Nickel 3-3-5 defensive scheme. Look for Askew-Henry to bounce back with aggression after having to sit and watch last season.
Next to Askew-Henry will be bandit safety Toyous Avery. The redshirt junior out of Covington, GA, played behind senior safety Jeremy Tyler last season. Avery made his first and only career start in the Russell Athletic Bowl game against Miami. Although the bowl game was Avery’s first start, the 5-foot-11 safety made the most of every opportunity on the field for the Mountaineers last season. A special teams nightmare for opponents, Avery, in minimal time on defense, accumulated 24 tackles and three pass breakups. With still room to grow, Avery will benefit Coach Gibson with his ability to play close to the line to defend the run, play in the slot and drop back in coverage.
A familiar face to the Mountaineer faithful at the strong safety position will be Kyzir White. The senior out of Lackawanna College separated himself from his brothers — Kevin and Ka’Raun — not only by playing on the defensive side of the ball but by being a force and hard hitting safety. White turned heads after filling the shoes of K.J. Dillon rather quickly. Standing at 6-foot-2, White had no problems becoming acclimated in WVU’s defense last season, racking up 58 tackles and two hard-hitting forced fumbles. White, at the spur/strong safety position, did most of his damage in the backfield, posting three sacks, and seven tackles for loss, earning him All-Big 12 Second team from ESPN.com. White brings physicality to the West Virginia secondary, with a natural instinct to get into the backfield.
On one side of the secondary, Elijah Battle will assume the role Maurice Fleming played in last year. Battle, in his second year out of Dodge City Community College, appeared in 11 games and started in three for the Mountaineers last season. In those appearances the 5-foot-11 corner from New Jersey had his best game against Baylor where he had a season-high seven tackles, proving his ability to play man-to-man and limit yards after the catch. One of Battle’s greatest attributes is his ability to tackle in the open field, as he added 21 tackles of his own last year.
The opposite side of Battle still is a toss up, but the early favorite could be senior Mike Daniels. The Miami native did not get many opportunities to step in in his first year out of Globe Tech Community College. Playing in only six games last season and primarily a special teams player, Daniels saw his usage rise in the bowl game against Miami. But there is another player making a viable run for the spot Douglas once filled. Early enrollee Hakeem Bailey is not making it easy on Daniels. The 6-foot-1 redshirt sophomore from Atlanta, GA, with great size is making a run for the starting job. Bailey is great at moving his hips and tracking the ball. The corner from Iowa Western Community College hopes to contribute early at his new home in Morgantown.
Players to watch in the secondary in case of injuries: S Marvin Gross, S Derek Pitts, CB Jordan Adams