With spring practice having concluded with the 2015 Gold-Blue Game in Morgantown on April 25th BlueGoldSports’ Data Analyst and Senior Writer Mark Fought breaks down each WVU football position group as Mountaineer football fans continue to endure the long days of waiting for fall practice to begin. Today, the defensive backfield.
In a recent ESPN Big 12 Blog article (Here) highly respected ESPN Staff Writer Jake Trotter ranked West Virginia’s defensive backfield the best in the Big 12 coming out of the conference’s 2015 spring practices. To fully appreciate that recognition it is interesting to reflect briefly on where the Mountaineer secondary has been over the past three seasons.
Dismal would be kind in describing the West Virginia defensive backfield in 2012. The Mountaineer secondary was a primary culprit as WVU stumbled home with a 2-6 record after a 5-0 start. That backfield set practically every all-time school record for passing defense futility. West Virginia opponents racked up 495 points (38.1 per game) and 4,078 passing yards (313.7 per game). Five WVU opponents went over 500 yards through the air. Three opposing quarterbacks tallied six (6) touchdown passes amongst the total of 38 given up. In all, the 2012 WVU defense allowed 131 more points than any other defense in school history, many of them on long passing plays. It was a rude introduction to a new conference that had a reputation as being “pass happy.” It was painfully clear that the type of athletes that had manned the defensive secondaries for Mountaineer teams in the Big East simply wouldn’t cut it in the school’s new conference home. Recruiting taller, rangier, faster athletes became an immediate priority for the coaching staff. Cornerbacks coach Daron Roberts was fired before the Pinstripe Bowl loss to Syracuse by head coach Dana Holgorsen, replaced by Brian Mitchell, who came to Morgantown after three seasons as the Defensive Coordinator at East Carolina. Joe DeForest – the first-year Defensive Coordinator – was reassigned as Special Team Coordinator as some Mountaineer fans openly howled for his outright dismissal. The only bright spot in the 2012 secondary was the play of true safety freshman Karl Joseph, who started all 13 games, tied for 14th nationally in solo tackles and brought a hard-hitting edge to the playing field.
Much beleaguered the year before and with nowhere to go but up in 2013 the Mountaineer pass defense did improve – ever so slightly – to 108th (of 125 teams) (http://www.cfbstats.com/2013/leader/national/team/defense/split01/category02/sort01.html) under new coordinator Keith Patterson, who moved up from his linebackers position coaching role. There were several lapses that reminded WVU fans of the 2012 defensive backfield disaster. Baylor torched the Mountaineer secondary for 396 yards; it could have been even worse had Baylor’s ground game not been even more potent. Texas Tech racked up 462 aerial yards. TCU logged 394 yards in the air. The capper was the fourth quarter collapse in the regular season finale culminating in the Mountaineers allowing a 25-yard touchdown pass to Iowa State in overtime – among the season-high 331 yards and four (4) TDs hurled by unheralded freshman quarterback Grant Rohach – as West Virginia blew a 31-7 lead, losing 52-44 at home. Despite the lapses, some progress was evident, particularly the play of another true freshman, cornerback Daryl Worley, who started five games and saw action in 11 of the team’s 12 contests.
After two defensive coordinators in two years Tony Gibson moved up from safeties coach to become the third consecutive new Defensive Coordinator upon Patterson’s departure to join Todd Graham at Arizona State, with DeForest taking over the safeties. Finally, meaningful progress was evident as the Mountaineer pass defense improved to 73rd in Division 1 – not great, but far from the dumpster fires of the previous two seasons. The defense yielded 3,006 passing yards – over 1,000 less than in 2012. Yet another true freshman – 4-star free safety Dravon Henry – put a stranglehold on the job in fall camp and started all 13 games on his way to being named an ESPN.com True Freshman All-American. Not a single second half passing touchdown was yielded by the Mountaineer defense during the regular season.
The 38 passing touchdowns in 2012 shrank to 24 in 2013 and just 14 in 2014. The pass efficiency rating went from 92nd in 2013 to 28th in 2014. Setting aside the statistics, the sense of most WVU fans following the 2014 season was that the defensive secondary was no longer the leaking sieve of 2012-13 and that the caliber of athletes being put on the field and their playmaking abilities were on the rise.
Could another freshman or a junior college star crack the Mountaineer secondary’s starting line-up in 2015, joining the parade of first year starters Joseph, Worley and Henry? Can the Mountaineer secondary live up to its high expectations this fall? Let’s look at each position in the pass defense unit coming out of spring practice.
In the Mountaineers’ 3-3-5 defensive configuration the Spur is the unique hybrid defensive back-linebacker position. (One can think of the role as perhaps 60 percent safety and 40 percent linebacker.) The position demands a combination of size, intelligence, patience and speed. Often a Spur is a player whose career began as a safety but the player’s body grew since his freshman year towards more of a linebacker’s size but yet the player retained the speed of a defensive back. The Spur is the most versatile player on a 3-3-5 defense as, on a given play, he may need to “bring the wood” and hit like a linebacker, rush the quarterback on blitz packages or drop back into pass protection (analogous to a nickel back role in an NFL defensive sense). The Spur’s foremost responsibility is the pass; only when he reads an option or a pitch is the Spur’s primary responsibility one of run stoppage and in such situations the Spur always has responsibility for the pitch man. The Spur often finds himself in one-on-one coverage with an inside (slot) receiver or a tight end in zone coverage on short to intermediate routes (curls, flat passes, etc.). The Spur is usually the last line of defense on a running play before a runner breaks through the defense’s second layer and finds his way into the secondary; thus, the Spur is often the backstop of the front 6 in the 3-3-5 alignment. Given the physical requirements of the position a Spur is more often than not an upperclassman.
In K. J. Dillon (Sr., 6’-1”, 203, Apopka, FL) WVU has a veteran player with an ideal blend of the physical and mental attributes needed to handle the Spur position. Dillon, who survived a rather scary visit to the ICU for severe dehydration and diabetes-related issues following the Texas game in 2013 that essentially ended his season, brings 16 career starts and 35 games worth of experience to the 2015 Mountaineer squad. He returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown against Texas A&M in the Liberty Bowl and has 110 career tackles (80 solo, 30 assisted). Dillon has good lateral range and athleticism, evidenced by Holgorsen trying him at punt returner in the Gold-Blue Game. Whether that experiment transfers into fall camp remains to be seen (it likely won’t), but Dillon will be one of the veterans Gibson will depend on heavily this fall.
On Dillon’s heels this spring was Dayron Wilson (r-Sr., 5’-10”, 204, Woodbridge, VA). Wilson lacks the ideal build for the Spur position but saw action in all 13 games and recovered a fumble against Kansas State. Wilson was a fixture on special teams with 194 appearances. Chasing Dillon and Wilson coming out of spring ball was Dajean Funderburk (r-Fr., 6’-1”, 192, Washington, DC). Funderburk simply needs more time to fill out his frame to contribute significantly at the Spur position but could get some snaps early in the season before conference play kicks in.
In its recently released All-Big 12 Preseason Team Athlon named Cornerback Daryl Worley (Jr., 6’-2”, 198, Philadelphia, PA) to its first team (joining fellow Mountaineer defenders Nick Kwiatkowski and Joseph, plus specialists Josh Lambert and Nick O’Toole). Worley is tall and fast – a good combination for a cornerback – and can flip his hips quickly, which may be a corner’s most important attribute. He brings 4 interceptions and 9 pass break-ups (PBUs) into 2015 and has seen action in 22 games as a Mountaineer. Worley missed spring drills recovering from shoulder surgery but presuming a full recovery he will almost certainly start at one corner. Backing up Worley will be senior Ricky Rumph (5’-11”, 188, Daytona Beach, FL). Rumph has appeared in 31 games – much of it on special teams. He recorded his first career interception against Kansas State last season and had four solo tackles against the Aggies in the Liberty Bowl. Third on the depth chart coming out of spring drills was untested Khairi Shariff (r-Jr., 5’-8”, 180), an invited walk-on from Bellaire, TX via Cisco Community College.
Opposite Worley the other cornerback slot may see some interesting developments in the fall. Terrell Chestnut (r-Sr., 5’-11”, 188, Pottstown, PA) started 12 of 13 games in 2014 and returned a fumble 35 yards for a touchdown after stripping the ball from TCU’s Josh Doctson. He participated in 611 of the 957 defensive plays from scrimmage (502 rushes, 455 passes) in 2014. Chestnut was the leader to be the starter at the corner opposite Worley when spring drills ended. Behind Chestnut was redshirt junior Nana Kyeremeh (pronounced KY-rum) (5’-11”, 190, Worthington, OH). Kyeremeh lacks game experience, having appeared in just 4 games as a Mountaineer. He redshirted in 2013 due to a shoulder injury suffered in August of that year.
To lock down a starting job Chestnut may need to fight off a challenge from two new additions to the roster. Tyrek Cole (5’-11”, 180) is an incoming four-star recruit from the Miramar High School (Hollywood, FL) pipeline to Morgantown. A one-time Florida State commit, Cole has the raw ability to potentially become the fourth freshman to start in the WVU defensive backfield in the last four years. Cole was set to be a participant in the US Army Under Armour All American Game until a misdemeanor charge stemming from a fight with a high school classmate derailed those plans and he was suspended by Miramar coaches for a preseason game and a regular season game for violations of team rules during his senior high school season. If Cole can keep away from off-the-field troubles he could excel on the field and could mount a serious challenge to Chestnut.
Another challenger at cornerback will be Rasul Douglas – a 6’-3”, 200-pound corner out of Nassau Community College, where he earned All-American honors. Douglas is a coveted 4-star recruit that will have three years to play two seasons. His addition to the roster will only further elevate the competitiveness of this position. Cole and Douglas may well be the biggest impact players in 2015 from that year’s recruiting class. Watch this position closely in August to see how the battle for playing time unfolds.
Barring injuries there is not a lot of suspense regarding the starting spots at both safety positions . . . or, is there? Karl Joseph (Sr., 5’-11”, 197, Orlando, FL) will start at the strong safety position (also referred to as the boundary safety) and presumably Dravon Henry (So., 5’-11”, 198, Aliquippa, PA) will start at the free safety position.
Joseph has started all 38 games in which he has played since setting foot on Milan Puskar Stadium’s turf, including his first two seasons at the free safety position. He earned numerous All Freshmen team accolades in his initial WVU campaign. Last year Joseph moved from the free safety spot to the strong safety role, which allows him to take greater advantage of his fondness for contact, and became an All Big 12 First Team performer. Opposing receivers cringe when Joseph is in the same zip code as he has very much earned his reputation as a fierce tackler that aggressively seeks highlight reel hits. That characteristic may also be his biggest drawback, however, as Joseph sometimes strives to make the big hit at the expense of maintaining coverage. Joseph will never be categorized as a great coverage safety, but refraining from a singular focus on delivering bone-crunching hits on opponents and maintaining his assigned coverage assignments will help elevate Joseph’s overall game. Backing up Joseph will be redshirt junior Jared Harper (6’-1”, 208, Frostburg, MD). Harper, who blocked a punt out of the end zone for a safety against Maryland last season, sat out spring drills to recover from shoulder surgery. He has appeared in 25 games as a Mountaineer and has the height at 6’-1” to thwart “jump balls” with taller wide receivers. He doesn’t have Joseph’s ferociousness as a hitter (who does?!) but his coverage skills are essentially equal to those of Joseph.
A free safety ideally is tall, lean (no extra weight is needed for this position to slow the player down) and, most importantly, quick. The free safety isn’t usually a “hitter” but more of a finesse player, using technique and pursuit angles to execute the position’s responsibilities. The free safety also requires good open field tackling skills.
The free safety is most often in a “roving” type of mode, playing the last line of defense between a ball carrier/route runner and the end zone, except in certain formations. (In a Cover 2 formation the free safety and the strong safety essentially split the filed in half, each covering half the width of the field, i.e., whichever receiver runs an intermediate or deep route into their half of the field is who they will pick up. In a Cover 3 formation the strong and free safeties are joined by a third safety in a 5-player backfield and they essentially split the width of the field into thirds, with the free safety playing center field. In a man-free formation the cornerbacks and the strong safety have specific opposing player assignments and the free safety typically provides help to whichever defender is covering the deepest route running receiver.)
As noted above, Henry was the third straight freshman to latch onto a starting role in three years in the WVU secondary. While Henry was occasionally out of position – primarily due simply to inexperience – at times last year he proved to be worth his starting role. Henry will only get better with experience in taking the proper angles and in recognizing opposing offenses’ formations and tendencies. Pushing Henry hard this spring was Jeremy Tyler (Jr., 5’-11”, 205, Lithonia, GA). Tyler played in 8 games as a freshman (starting one) and appeared in all 13 games last year. The gap between these two players narrowed during spring practice and it is certainly not a given that Henry will hold onto his starting role – not because of a drop-off from Henry but more so because of gains made by Tyler, who improved his tackling skills this spring and has about a 10-pound advantage on Henry. Tyler also has a superb work ethic (not that Henry doesn’t) and this could also be a very spirited battle in fall camp.
Other defensive backs on the current WVU football roster include Mark Ellis (CB, r-Fr., 5’-10”, 175, Williamstown, NJ) and Brandon Rivers (S, r-Fr., 6’-0”, 187, Hubbard, OH).
Beginning their Mountaineer careers this fall are the following incoming freshman (in addition to the aforementioned Cole):
- Kevin Williams (3-star, CB, 6’-1”, 179, Pompano Beach, FL)
- Kendrell McFadden (4-star, 6’-3”, 193, Hollywood, FL)
- Jordan Adams (3-star, 6’-0”, 170, Reisterstown, MD)
In summary, the WVU defensive backfield has several veterans returning and some talented newcomers that should push the incumbents in fall camp. Developing depth is always an issue in the defensive backfield and WVU has elevated its recruiting (note the heights of the incoming defenders above) to better compete with the Big 12 passing attacks it will routinely face on fall Saturdays. Mountaineer fans everywhere hope that the defensive backfield’s upward trend from 2012 to 2014 continues and that the WVU defensive secondary will prove to be a position group strength for the 2015 Mountaineers.