Brian Mitchell went head-to-head with those high-flying Big 12 systems from 2006-09 when he was the cornerbacks coach at Texas Tech, so he knows the challenges any defense faces when going up against offensive schemes in the league. He saw his own Red Raider team pile up passing yardage during that span, and also got a firsthand look at some of the other schools, such as Oklahoma State, who put up record numbers. With that experience, Mitchell believes fundamentals are important, from both a physical and a schematic standpoint, and highlighted a pair of those when asked about the most important things a defense must do in the Big 12.
"You need a scheme that is unpredictable. It has to move the dots for the quarterback," Mitchell said, referring to the ability to make the QB move and not allow him to throw from his preferred position in the pocket. "You don't want to be in the same situation back-to-back. I think Coach Keith Patterson has a great feel for that, and we are going to keep those quarterbacks guessing. We are going to give them multiple fronts and multiple coverages.
"The other thing is that kids have to be fundamentally sound," he continued. "They have to be great tacklers in space. You have to limit those yards after the catch."
One of Mitchell's first duties in the spring was to see where the cornerbacks were in terms of their individual abilities, and where he needed to start the building process. He admits that he began pretty much from scratch, and that the process of instilling those fundamentals is nowhere near complete. With his players facing their third defensive system in three years, there's the danger of confusion and overload, but Mitchell believes that this year's scheme alleviates some of those problems.
"Coach Patterson likes to say that we have a scheme that is multiple but simple," Mitchell noted, acknowledging that the two might appear to be in conflict but really aren't. "There's a progression that we have to go through every day. We are trying to have our every-day drills [emphasize the fundamentals], and our kids have to go through those every day."
Mitchell and the defensive staff crammed as much of that as possible into the 15 spring practices, then turned the players loose for summer work on their own, when they are not allowed to have coaching contact. Still, there are ways that every player can improve over May, June and July, and Mitchell is counting on them to take advantage of that time.
"They have to take advantage of technology," he said of ways in which players can review their progress and self-correct mistakes. "Kids are able to put their practice film [from the spring] on their iPads and laptops, and they can come in and have access to them on our computers. You can get ahead of the curve by applying yourself and doing a little bit extra.
"You can always work on your footwork and watch film," he said of realistic ways in which players can improve without direct coaching. "You can get the guys out there and throw and defend routes that you are going to see on a week-in week-out basis. You have those natural leaders who can put those together, and you have to trust they are doing everything they can to maximize their summer time."
Although the summer work can have benefits, there is also the danger of errors, rather than correct techniques, being ingrained without the ability of the coaches to address them. Mitchell acknowledges that possibility, but believes it's not a huge issue.
"There will always need to be some corrections those first few days of fall practice, but you try to give them a good foundation coming out of spring. They can look at their video to help them over the summer. You do worry about it, but you have to think they are getting something out of the summer."
Mitchell noted that he didn't watch a great deal of video from a year ago, preferring not to taint his view of his players based on their past performances. He believes there is enough talent on hand to be successful, but stresses that West Virginia must excel in its execution and communication in order to improve on last year's performance.
Along with those improvement items comes the question of leadership, and it's one that still remains unanswered. West Virginia had very few leaders on defense in 2012, and that part of the Mountaineers game suffered as yards and losses mounted during the second half of the season. It's an area that has to improve, and like everything else on defense Mitchell believes it is still far from the finish line. As such, he's not ready to identify any candidates, but said that the process is underway.
"I think it's a work in progress," he detailed. "You are always looking for guys who are doing it the right way. Going to class, being great citizens, being the best workers. They don't necessarily need to be the most vocal. We've identified some guys that can be leaders, and we are going to teach them how to become good leaders."