Looked at strictly from a statistical angle, the odds are that West Virginia's pass coverage should be better this fall, because it's a case of nowhere to go but up. WVU's bottom rankings against the pass have been well-chronicled, so there's no need to rehash them as players and coaches work to try to improve on the ugly numbers of 2012. However, making the assumption that things are going to automatically be better just isn't valid.
A number of factors will play into West Virginia's ability to improve. There's the installation of a revamped defensive scheme, which doesn't totally throw out coverages of a year ago, but certainly has new features from the philosophy of pass rushers through the assignments of the buck and spur to the abilities of the corners and safeties. Add in two new coaches, and a new assignment for Keith Patterson as the sole architect of the defense, and the new items to be learned make a pile as high as a coal mine slag pile.
In order to cope with all of those challenges, West Virginia must first make sure that its fundamentals are sound, and that all players are on the proverbial "same page". In 2012, many players weren't even reading the same book, so correcting that issue is job one.
"The biggest thing that we have to do right now is teach the kids how to communicate," safeties coach Tony Gibson said as the Mountaineers neared the halfway point of spring drills. "Communication progression, what kind of formations are they giving us, knowing the situation of what's happening and what's going on. I think sometimes they play by the seat of their pants and don't know what's going on. We just have to get that right.
"That's the biggest part of football, especially in the back end. We're the last line of defense, so we have to communicate," he continued. "If we don't know what call we're in, big plays happen. That's how you give up big plays and big touchdowns, and that's what we have to limit."
Examples of such breakdowns abounded in 2012, perhaps no more shockingly so than the missed call and coverage which resulted in a late TCU touchdown that covered almost the entire length of the field and led to a WVU loss. Those mistakes weren't limited to just one or two players, so a fix wasn't easy. Only two ways lay open for correction – modifying the scheme and repping again and again to make lining up, reading the formation and adjusting to it second nature.
"We've had good meetings. We've had good practices. I think the kids are getting it," Gibson said before cautioning that the defense is still early in the process. "Are the kids where we need them to be? Not even close right now. You see them everyday doing something a little bit better, and then some things start to slack off a little bit, but we're emphasizing day by day. ‘Hey, today we're going to get better at this and that. Tomorrow we're going to get better at this.' We're kind of taking it in steps, and when you start coaching the one thing we always say is don't get bored with what you're doing and try to put in a lot of new stuff. Let's get good at what we're doing and keep going."
Patterson, Gibson and the rest of the defensive coaches are also still working on just getting the base defense in. While there will be some similarities in some alignments this fall, the new system, emphasizing more upfield rushing rather than side-to-side containment (and also more one-gap techniques than two-gap control), leads to changes all the way to the back of the defense. The bucks and spurs will be more interchangeable, hopefully leading to more confusion as to where pressure might be coming from. Safeties will also have different responsibilities, and are learning new keys to read – and that's just the first step in putting together a total system. Gibson explains, however, that the coaches can't get ahead of themselves, or the players will suffer.
"We want to cram a lot of stuff in them, but we've kind of had to hold it back a little bit due to our install of our base defense so we could get good at something. Right now, we're trying to get good at our base defense with our base coverages – those kinds of things. They're good for taking it from the meeting room out onto the practice field. They're executing well at times. When we don't, it goes back to communication. We don't know what one guy is doing and where we need to be. Right now we're not trying to build a defense to scheme up our offense, we're trying to build a base defense. What we have to be able to do is stop people with base front and base coverage. We can't be forced to go out there and blitz every time to try to stop people."
One of the major missing pieces of the defense is consistent edge pass rushers who can get to the quarterback quickly. Patterson hopes that help is on the way this fall in the form of a couple of freshman signees, but until then, he's having to make do with the players on hand. The returnees are getting their chance to show what they can do, but with Wes Tonkery inactive as he recovers from surgery, the numbers are just too limited to make a lot of modifications.
"When you're a guy or two away, I think you can fix that, but when you're four or five guys away, then it gets harder," Gibson said. "Right now, we're at a good pace, and we're right where we need to be at this point."
That assessment may be on target, but it's important to note that the finish line is still over the horizon. WVU's defensive coaches are going about building the defense with a patient, methodical approach – one that they hope will yield better long term results. Just how long the construction period will be, however, is the question that can't be answered yet.