Paving the Way

West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame inductee Canute Curtis was an early prototype of the multi-tasking defenders that now populate the Mountaineer defensive scheme.

Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 defense makes use of safeties that have responsibilities all over the field. The spurs and bandits in his ever-evolving scheme might rush the quarterback on one play, drop 25 yards downfield the next, and provide run support on the third. Players with the ability to execute all those assignments are the linchpin of the system, and allow the many variations that make it a tough look to scheme against.

Several years before Casteel came to WVU, however, there was another player who was cast into the same role, if not at the same position. Curtis, who was a linebacker initially, morphed into what the Mountaineer staff termed a "rush end". From that spot, Curtis could blitz the QB or drop back into coverage. He had the strength and speed to get off the edge and make plays in the backfield but he also had the agility required to cover receivers man-to-man. And just like West Virginia's safeties on the 2010 team, Curtis was a prime factor in pushing the defensive unit to the top of the national rankings.

Curtis, now an assistant coach at Towson University, recalled the circumstances that led to the move.

"Coach Steve Dunlap and the defensive staff had gone up to visit the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dick LeBeau, and they got the idea about the blitzes and the position from there," he said. "I liked it a lot. It was fun, because I got to do different things. I could rush the quarterback, or drop and play man or zone defense. The coaches did a really great job with it, because they put me in a position to be successful."

Curtis certainly took advantage of that positioning. He had 34.5 sacks, 15 pass breakups and 26 tackles for loss during his career at West Virginia, and also forced six fumbles while pouncing on another five. Those across-the-board numbers attest to his greatness in a variety of roles, and to how quickly he grew into the rush end spot.

While he was happy with the job duties, however, he was less than thrilled with his primary coach at the time. That coach, however, turned out to be one of the driving forces of his career.

"Coach Dunlap was always on me. He was tough on me, and it seemed like he was never happy with what I was doing," Curtis recalled. "I told him that if it meant I was going to be as sour as him, I'd never coach football."

As so often happens, however, those words, spoken with bravado at the time, proved to be ones the 1996 consensus All-American had to eat.

"Of course, now I'm a coach, and I love him to death," Curtis continued with a big laugh. "We've talked about it and joked about it a lot. I ended up learning a lot from him."

Dunlap wasn't the only coach that helped shape Curtis' entry into the coaching ranks in 2004. He still draws on the lessons learned from the defensive staff at WVU.

"I learned a ton from West Virginia's coaches," he explained. "One of the biggest things was that you have to coach different kids differently. What works with one player might not work with another, so you have to be able to adjust.

"From Coach Donnie Young, I learned about the fathering, mentoring role. Coach Nehlen gave me the confidence to play, to just let it all out and play hard. Coach Kirelawich, he always made sure you were motivated and ready to play. And then Coach Dunlap, he always had a foot in my tail, but that made me want to show him I could do it."

Curtis has drawn on his dual role at West Virginia in his coaching career as well, having coached linebackers and defensive linemen at Towson, Tennessee State and Hampton. He was also quick to credit his teammates for both his Hall of Fame honor as well as with helping to advance his coaching career.

"I didn't think about getting into the Hall of Fame when I was at West Virginia, but I had a lot of great guys around me, and they all helped. When you play with guys like Aaron Beasley, and getting to coach with [WVU alumnus] Jerry Holmes at Hampton, it makes all the difference."

Curtis will be inducted into the Hall on Saturday, Oct. 8, prior to the West Virginia-Connecticut football game. He will be joined by five other Mountaineer greats in the ceremonies.

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