MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–After losing many key components to its secondary, the West Virginia University football team is once again in the rebuilding process.
Three of the Mountaineers top four cornerbacks graduated and the biggest loss was Rasul Douglas, who led the team with eight interceptions and tied for the national lead. Senior Elijah Battle is the only returning cornerback with any substantial experience.
Battle saw action in 11 games, where he had 23 tackles, including 21 solo stops. He assisted on a tackle for a loss and had one pass breakup.
Currently, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson and cornerbacks coach Doug Belk are looking at the options and it’s anyone’s for the taking.
“We’re happy with that position right now, but we don’t know if we’re comfortable with it yet,” Gibson said. “I think Coach Belk is doing a great job with them. We will continue to keep building it and see how many guys we can play. It would be nice to get to five or six guys for sub packages, just to give a guy a breather.”
One guy making an impression is redshirt sophomore Hakeem Bailey.
The 6-foot, 186-pound corner is a transfer from Iowa Western Community College, where he recorded 40 total tackles, including 27 solo stops and 1.5 tackles for loss last season. He had a team-leading five interceptions and nine pass breakups.
“Hakeem Bailey, he is a kid who has made a bunch of plays, and he is very solid,” Gibson said. “He doesn’t say a whole lot, which I like. He just goes out and plays.”
Consequently, Bailey is challenging Battle and senior Mike Daniels for a starting position.
By the same token, Daniels is having an impressive spring. Last season he only saw action in six games.
However, Daniels played in 11 games at Globe Tech Community College in 2015. He had seven picks, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
The 5-11, 204-pounder finished his sophomore season with 37 tackles and a blocked kick.
“Mike Daniels is a kid who had a very good offseason,” Gibson said. “He probably had the best offseason of anybody in that room. I like where he is.”
Gibson is still waiting for redshirt sophomore Jordan Adams to step up but he continues to progress daily. Adams saw limited action last season.
In high school, he was a three-year starter and collected 42 tackles as a senior.
Redshirt freshman Sean Mahone and Jake Long are also progressing nicely.
“Mahone and Jake Long are guys who we are counting on, and they are doing some good things,” Gibson said.
When Syracuse graduate transfer Corey Winfield arrives, the battle for corner is likely to really heat up.
Winfield won’t land at WVU until May but the Mountaineers have had plentiful success with graduate transfers in the past
In three seasons with the Orange, Winfield registered 85 tackles, three sacks and three interceptions. He has two years of starting experience in the ACC.
Correspondingly, the safety position also took a hit after losing two starters. While WVU will miss Jeremy Tyler and Jarrod Harper, the Mountaineers return three safeties with starting experience.
Dravon Askew-Henry missed last season with an ACL injury but the redshirt junior is ready to get back on the field.
As a sophomore, he posted 59 tackles (47 solo), a tackle for loss, an interception and four pass breakups in 13 games. The 6-foot, 195-pound safety partook in a team-high 1,105 snaps, including a team-high 952 on defense.
In the Cactus Bowl, Askew-Henry had a team-high seven tackles against Arizona State.
When Askew-Henry went down, a lot of questions concerning the safety position surfaced. With the emergence of Tyler and Harper, any uncertainties disappeared.
Another factor in the Mountaineers’ success at safety was the contributions of JUCO transfer Kyzir White at the hybrid SPUR spot. Entering his senior season, White is expected to pick right back up where he left off.
He started 12 games last season and was second on the team in sacks (3) and third in tackles for loss (7).
Against Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl, the Macungie, Pa. native had six tackles, one tackle for a loss and a pass breakup.
“He made a bunch of plays last year,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said of White. “There wasn’t a huge adjustment period for him last year. We needed a Spur last year and he stepped in without a spring and gave us those good snaps. Just overall good play. He was consistent, he made plays, he is a force. He can run, he can hit, he can cover, he can blitz.”
Behind White is redshirt senior Marvin Gross, who started the final game of the regular season against Baylor.
“Marvin is a kid who is very athletic,” Gibson said. “We play him in a hybrid position. He is a kid who was a defensive lineman who moved to linebacker who moved out to safety. I feel that his game right now is as good as it has ever been. Yes, I could see signs of him doing this. We use him in the right way, blitzing him a little bit, trying to limit his man coverage. He plays physical against the run, he is very athletic and hard to block.”
During the game against the Bears, he tied a career-high with six tackles, forced a fumble, had two sacks, intercepted on pass and had a pass breakup, earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honors.
“The opportunity just presented itself at times, so I was just blessed to be able to make the plays that I made at the times,” Gross said.
Now, the 6-foot-2, 195-pounder is primed to make the most of his final season.
“This is my last year, so I know I have to make a statement, and I plan to do that,” Gross said. “I’m just going to go out there and play my game and let it happen how it happens.”
Redshirt junior Toyous Avery is expected to make some noise at bandit safety this season. He is the frontrunner for the job.
Behind Avery is true freshman Derek Pitts. The highly touted four-star recruit has high expectations upon him.
The Dunbar native had 348 career tackles, including 13 sacks and 35 tackles for loss for South Charleston High. He won the Carl Lee Award for top defensive back in the state.
Also, Pitts earned All-West Virginia All-State First Team honors and was named Charleston Gazette-Mail Kanawha Valley Player of the Year. All of his accolades drew attention from Clemson, Louisville, Florida, Oklahoma, among others.
Sophomore JoVanni Stewart is another young player who is impressing coaches during spring practices.
“JoVanni, every day you see him doing something better,” Gibson said. “He plays physical. He plays fast. He understands our system. He’s a guy that like I said a week ago has played all three safety spots. Right now, every rep he’s getting means he’s more valuable to what we do.”
While WVU is far from game ready, last season echoed comparable sentiments at this time of the year. When game fall rolled around, the Mountaineers had a top notch secondary on the field.
Cover Photo Credit: Kelsie LeRose, BGS