The numbers are familiar to many Mountaineer fans. West Virginia's pass defense has been abysmal recently, and while slight improvements were seen in 2013, the team still allowed 263 yards per game (built mostly on the back of teams such as Georgia State, Kansas and Oklahoma, who couldn't complete more than half their passes against air). The other seven Big 12 teams scorched the airways for 2,479 yards against the Mountaineers.
Many factors contributed to those numbers, including lack of talent, lack of depth and injury. But no matter what the issue, cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell believes better days are ahead.
While the former NFL defensive back mentions all of those factors in discussing the issues faced by his players and the defense as a whole, he doesn't hide behind them as excuses. He also thinks that the corner is ready to be turned.
"Toward the end of the season, we had injuries that were just devastating," Mitchell said, highlighting the use of freshman Daryl Worley at every secondary position as one of the stopgap measures used to fill the voids. "We were so deficient in so many areas last year, we had to move him. He played seven different positions. We are not going to play him "in" nearly as much this year, although we may have some match-up situations where we do that. He is going to be the left or right corner primarily this year."
Putting a player at one primary position for most snaps is a goal of defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, and its one that Mitchell agrees with. While some players may move a bit on third down packages or in response to opposing lineups and formations, a call for simplicity in assignments is one of the bigger themes of the defensive transition. That doesn't mean, though, that at least some benefit wasn't seen from players getting experience at multiple stops.
"When you have kids that can play more than just one position, you get more versatility. We are getting cookie cutter players now," Mitchell said of the bigger, longer corners and safeties that will hopefully be able to up their contributions both this year and in the future. "They look the part, and they can play the parts, and you can plug them in there. Not only do they know their responsibilities well, they know others within the scheme of what we are doing. And that goes back to what we are doing this summer. We are teaching a corner to know not just what the corners do, but what the linebackers and safeties are doing and how it ties in to the defense."
Overall scheme understanding is a goal, but Mitchell doesn't want to have game-to-game moves of players between the two cornerback and three safety positions. Ideally, he'd also like to have a sixth defensive back that can play a dime position without moving the other five, but that might not be possible. Still the goal is two-fold -- promote understanding of the defense as a whole, but limit position swapping.
Mitchell also will keep his corners on the same side of the field no matter where the ball is spotted, in order to match the fast pace of many Big 12 offenses. While most of them should be able to play both sides, they won't switch during a series.
"We are going to cross train so kids know both side, but when we are playing the tempo teams like Baylor, and Oklahoma State you physically can't get lined up [if you are switching sides]," Mitchell explained. "So, we are going with the approach that we will teach them both sides, and see where that takes us. We were productive with those guys on both sides at times last year."
"I'd like to see our team take a big jump maturity wise. You can't have confidence without that success on the field."
- Brian Mitchell
In building his position roster, Mitchell has a healthy contingent to choose from. All of the injuries from last year have healed, all the surgeries recovered from, so he's at least starting out fall camp with a full complement. The addition of newcomers such as Dravon Henry(who will begin as a corner) and Keishawn Richardson will help promote competition with returnees such as Ishmael Banks, who holds a starting spot opposite Worley for now, as well as Terrell Chestnut, Nana Kyeremeh and Brandon Napoleon.
"Individually, I would like to see Terrell Chestnut stay healthy," Mitchell said of the oft-injured Pennsylvanian. "He exudes everything you want at the corner position. He has the strength, he has the size, he has the speed and he has the intellect."
Mitchell and Gibson also have a wild card in the form of veteran defensive back Cullen Christian, who is the latest in a string of players to exercise the graduation exemption and transfer to WVU for a final season.
"I think the versatility of what he brings to the table bodes well for us. Not only can he play corner, but he can play safety. He can be that fifth DB in the game that you can put on the slot, because he can cover him all over the field. I think the sky's the limit for him, but we have to see what he can process mentally and then we'll go from there."
While the pieces may appear to be in place, the fact remains that performance on the field in the heat of game action must still be shown. That's a theme for several positions on the Mountaineer roster this year, and it's one that Mitchell doesn't try to deny. In describing an improvement circle, which starts with maturity, leading to success on the field, producing confidence and leading to fewer mistakes, Mitchell knows the time his now for his corps to build on the lessons they have learned.
"I'd like to see our team take a big jump maturity wise," Mitchell summed up. "You can't have confidence without that success on the field. There's a premium on seniors, because you can see how productive they are. With a freshman, and you are throwing them in the situation we are in the Big 12, that's a tough row to hoe. Some of those kids got baptized by fire, and that will pay dividends for us. They should be more mature. They should be able to scroll back in their brain and say 'Hey, I've been in this situation before. If I trust my technique, I can have success.'"