STORYLINES TO WATCH A star is born There’s a very good chance that this will be a huge breakout year for sophomore cornerback Daryl Worley. After being praised by coaches and teammates since arriving last season, Worley is settled in at corner and ready to make the leap to becoming one of the Big 12’s best. SPUR of the moment The SPUR position will be an important one for this team, allowing for hybrid safeties like K.J. Dillon, Marvin Gross, Dayron Wilson and Pitt transfer Cullen Christian to all have an opportunity to make plays as a the third safety on the field this year. An Icky situation Reportedly, senior cornerback Icky Banks is facing academic eligibility issues heading into the season. If he has to miss time or can’t play this season, it will be up to a handful of other corners on the roster to step up the way they have during camp.
When Brian Mitchell came to West Virginia a year ago, the Mountaineers were coming off their worst statistical season in program history on the defensive side of the ball. And a large reason for the team’s lackluster play was due to issues in the secondary.
Playing freshmen at nearly every position in the secondary at one time or another led to a lot of trial and error – with plenty of errors to go around – as WVU dropped to No. 118 out of the 120 teams in FBS college football in pass defense, allowing more than 300 yards per game through the air. But two years later, with more experience and a deeper group of talent to choose from, this group is confident and ready to use their past struggles to build future successes.
“Nobody wants to be looked at as the worst at something,” said cornerback Terrell Chestnut. “Just knowing that feeling of being at the bottom was tough. Everybody wants to be good and we have the pieces to the puzzle this time.”
Understanding those struggles and what they didn’t do well is something that Mitchell thinks is going to help the players in the secondary, and especially the cornerbacks, when the 2014 season comes around. It comes with the pride of wanting to be great at their position, something that is especially important at a cornerback position in which you’re on an island by yourself and it’s mostly going to be a showdown of you and the receiver one-on-one.
“The last few years we’ve played a lot of freshmen and have struggled. Through that process, they’ve developed their own toolbox and within that toolbox, they have a mental edge and a physical edge and those kids have matured,” Mitchell said.
“It’s like how they say iron sharpens iron. Their tools have been sharpened because of the experiences they have had in the past. Now you can take that experience and say, ‘Ok, I’ve been here before. I know what to do. I can keep pushing that much further.”
Along with the mentality of knowing what to expect more than they have in the last two seasons, West Virginia brings a new-look scheme to the table this season.
Moving into a more versatile 3-3-5 setup defensively has allowed the Mountaineers to bring another defensive back into the mix in the starting 11, with a third safety (the SPUR position) making its way on the field to help with players on the inside.
It’s helped that there has been a lot of competition for just about every spot on the field during camp. Sophomore corner Daryl Worley and junior safety Karl Joseph have been set in their starting spots since the first day. But after reports of academic eligibility issues have Icky Banks’ season in doubt, it looks as if the door has been opened for cornerbacks like Terrell Chestnut, Travis Bell, Nana Kyeremeh and Ricky Rumph – who have all received praise from Mitchell and the rest of the staff during camp – to get more reps.
“Everything you do is about mentality. It's not just talking about it, it's about being about it,” Mitchell said. “If we're doing a tackling drill, we're going to come off and hit the sled. We're doing a drill today where a corner has to beat two blockers to get to a cone. We're going to be developing toughness, you can't just think it's going to be born in you.”
But the most interesting battle to keep an eye on has been at the free safety spot. While Joseph is the starter at the bandit position, with Jarrod Harper looking like he can be a solid backup, with KJ Dillon, Dayron Wilson and Cullen Christian all becoming more and more comfortable at spur, that has left an important showdown between sophomore Jeremy Tyler and true freshman Dravon Henry.
Tyler earned more playing time and a start by the end of his freshman year, while Henry looks mature beyond his years – earning comparisons to how Worley carried himself a year ago.
“Right now it’s a battle,” Tyler said. “It’s been just about coming in day in and day out and getting better and helping our team. That’s what matters the most in the end.”
As a whole, with the amount of experience and competition the defensive backs have had to play with this preseason, the Mountaineers could be ready to go when the season comes around.
“We have to be able to adjust to the big games,” Worley said. “Whether it’s the offense we play or the environment we’re in, we have to stay focused on everything we do. We can only worry about us.”
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
1. Ishmael Banks, Senior (Reportedly facing academic eligibility concerns)
2013: 32 tackles, 2 INT, 1 FR
2. Terrell Chestnut, Junior
2013: 10 tackles, 1 FF
3. Brandon Napoleon, Sophomore
2013: Three tackles, 1 FR
1. Dravon Henry, Freshman
2013 (at Aliquippa HS): 49 tackles, 3 INT, 1 FR
2. Jeremy Tyler, Sophomore
2013: 17 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 FF
1. Karl Joseph, Junior
2013: 68 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FF, 4 FR
2. Jarrod Harper, Sophomore
2013: 10 tackles, 1 FF
1. KJ Dillon, Junior
2013: 28 tackles, 3 TFL, 6 pass breakups, 1 FR
2. Dayron Wilson, Junior
2012 (at Lackawanna College): 68 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT
3. Cullen Christian, Senior
2012 (at Pitt): 16 tackles, 1 pass breakup
1. Daryl Worley
2013: 45 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 5 pass breakups
2. Keishawn Richardon, Junior
2013 (at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M): 39 tackles, 2 INT, 9 pass breakups
3. Nana Kyeremeh, Sophomore
2012: 16 tackles, 2 pass breakups, 1 FR
What they're saying
“He wants exactness, he wants perfection. He wants us to know everything about the game of football. It's not just going out there with X's and O's. He gets to know us on a personal level, which helps us get to know him and respect him a lot more. He's a great coach. It has helped tremendously, I've learned so much just in the last year of him being here and I think we're further along than we were.”
- Cornerback Terrell Chestnut on CB coach Brian Mitchell
“Having that game experience under our belts will help a lot too. We've been in tough situations in the past, so we know how to handle ourselves when our backs are against the wall.”
- Safety Jarrod Harper
Meet the newcomers
Newcomers dot the roster of cornerbacks and safeties in 2014, and it's been an interesting process to follow in terms of determining those who will likely earn playing time this year.
When the recruiting class was finalized, junior college transfers Jaylon Myers and Keishawn Richardson were both expected to make a strong charge for snaps, with the former perhaps holding something of an edge. Richardson did compete reasonably well and has a chance to play on some pass packages and on special teams, but Myers' late admission has hurt his chances to make an impact on the depth chart. He could work his way up as the season progresses, but it will be a tough climb, even with Ishmael Banks out for at least part of the season with academic issues. Look for spot duty for both of these players through the first part of the schedule.
Safety Cullen Christian, a post-graduate transfer, was also watched closely during fall camp, as his experience at both Michigan and Pitt was expected to help him beef up WVU's depth. That has been the case, but as of now it looks like he will be one of the primary candidates for an extra defensive back slot, rather than challenging for a starting role. Watch for Christian when WVU pulls an interior defensive lineman and\or a linebacker and replaces the him with a DB.
It has then fallen to one of the most inexperienced newcomers in camp, freshman Dravon Henry, to mount the most serious campaign for playing time. Henry and free safety Jeremy Tyler have been locked in an ultra-competitive battle for the starting nod at the back end of the defense, and its one that is expected to continue throughout the year. If Banks is out for an extended period, Henry could also get a look at corner, although that would seem to run counter to the stated intention of minimizing the shifting of players from one position to another.
Also in camp, but destined for redhshirts, are safety Daejuan Funderburk and walk-on CB transfer Khairi Sharif.