Most recently, we looked at the prospects for WVU's linebackers, which look pretty good on the inside but have a glaring need at the outside spots. In making a combination evaluation of safeties and cornerbacks, the gap might be even wider.
The good news is that WVU potentially has the best pair of safeties it can put on the field in a long time, and that's saying something. However, the lack of quality experience at cornerback is the counter to that positive. Putting the two together, what will the results be?
UP: At the starting safety positions, Karl Joseph and Darwin Cook figure to be the anchors in the back end of the defense. Both are aggressive hitters, and while each has some room for improvement, they have a mountain of experience to call on. If the more simplified defensive schemes allow them to play more freely, they could form the top duo in the Big 12.
Behind them, K.J. Dillon and Jarrod Harper, both of whom reportedly had very good springs, form a very able backup duo. One or both could get some time in third down packages, and as they get reps they could further bolster what will become the deepest group in the league. Add in Travis Bell and a pack of promising newcomers, including Daryl Worley, who might be the focus of a tussle between corner and safety, and this is easily the deepest position on the defensive side of the ball.
At corner, there are a lot of familiar names, and if they can play to the level of their name recognition, WVU could be much better against the pass than anticipated. Senior Brodrick Jenkins looks to be set at one spot, and at least four players, including Nana Kyeremeh, Brandon Napoleon, Ricky Rumph and Ishmael Banks, will continue to compete through the fall for the other position and for backup time. While none have the experience level of Cook or Jenkins, they have been on the field early in their careers, and could be poised to overcome early jitters and settle in to their positions. There are also injury returnees in the form of Avery Williams and Terrell Chestnut, both of whom missed spring practice. If either is ready to go full speed in August (Williams is the more likely), WVU will have even more players in competition at corner. On the theory that competition leads to improvement, the Mountaineers might have three or four solid players from which to draw on the deep edges of the defense.
DOWN: There aren't many potential holes to find at safety. Joseph needs to work on better pursuit angles and quicker play recognition, but that's true of any maturing youngster. Cook had a down junior season, but that seems to be more attributable to the defensive scheme than any particular shortcoming on his part. While it's possible that he might struggle to learn his third defense in three seasons, it doesn't seem likely.
The potential for problems is markedly increased at corner. While the list of candidates is lengthy, no one other than Jenkins and Banks have shoms the ability to play consistently and shake off bac plays whe they occur. That, as much as raw physical skill, might be the most important thing a cornerback can learn, but after last year's multiple miscues, most of the pass defenders will be struggling to take that lesson to heart. Along with breaking the bad habits of a year ago, cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell is most concerned about instilling the cornerback mindset into his charges. If he can't do that, and West Virginia can't identify at least three dependable pass defenders, WVU is going to again have bad experiences in the pass-happy Big 12.
KEY ITEM: The key element for the secondary is a simple one – teamwork. That's an item that was missing in 2012, and it has to be present for the Mountaineers to improve against the pass in 2013.
The good news is that the teamwork issue isn't like the one that destroyed the basketball team a year ago. The effort was there on the football side, but continual blown coverages, missed assignments and failure to adjust well on the fly caused WVU to give up big play after big play a year ago.
This year, the Mountaineers have more experience to call on. Karl Joseph and Darwin Cook will, in addition to learning the new defense for themselves, have to help many of the players we've looked at in this edition of Up and Down. If they can become mentors and help a top five or six develop in the secondary, WVU will have a chance to improve, and be good enough to win some league games. However, with even more Big 12 squads going to pass-heavy spread attacks, the Mountaineers will have to not only learn their new schemes, but also improve on communication and teamwork. That's heavily on the shoulders of Joseph and Cook, and their success or failure in that task will loom large in 2013.