At first glance the depth chart appears adequate, even with the departures of graduated players and transfers. Junior Daryl Worley (who will sit out the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery) and redshirt senior Terrell Chestnut are anchors at the corners, and have backups with some playing time in the form of senior Ricky Rumph and redshirt junior Nana Kyeremeh. Juco Jaylon Myers appears to have an inside track to grab more playing time, given the departure of Brandon Napoleon. Keishawn Richardson, who is on track to graduate in the summer, is “not on the team right now” according to head coach Dana Holgorsen.
The three safety spots also feature familiar names at the top. Seniors Karl Joseph and K.J. Dillon should form one of the top duos in the country at their spur and bandit positions, while sophomore Dravon Henry hopes to improve on his true freshman season a year ago. Behind Henry, redshirt junior Jarrod Harper will sit out the spring like Worley, but when the season comes should provide experienced depth. Redshirt senior Dayron Wilson made a bit of a splash in the fall a year ago, and WVU also hopes to get more from youngsters such as redshirt freshman Daejuan Funderburk. It's also time for Malik Greaves (redshirt sophomore) and Jeremy Tyler (junior) to take the next steps in their careers.
Overall, the returnees accounted for 345 tackles and 11 interceptions a year ago. Their 23 pass break-ups is a number that's hoped to increase, as are the sack and quarterback hit totals, which were low. Some of that can be attributed to scheme, but with just 1.5 sacks and seven QB hits a year ago, more productivity in that area would make West Virginia even stronger on defense.
CONCERNS AND QUESTIONS
Although the coaches will maintain that “every job is open” and “every day is a competition”, it's clear that the starters for 2015 are pretty much set. Barring injury or some other external malfunction, Worley, Henry and Chestnut will deploy across the deep secondary, while Joseph and Dillon maintain their starting strong safety spots. That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't a couple of issues to be addressed there – not to mention a lot of playing time available for the group pushing that first five.
For the starters, more consistent reads and better decision-making are in the spotlight. Can Henry build on his promising freshman year and become another leader in the back of the defense? His potential there led to Joseph's move closer to the line of scrimmage, which is also to another item to watch. Can Joseph become as fearsome against the pass as he is against the run, or against receivers once they catch the ball? If he can improve his consistency in coverage, and the secondary as a whole can cut down on egregious mistakes, West Virginia has the chance to be even better defensively than it was a season ago.
A second item to keep track of is the motivation of the “backups”. That word is put in quotes because, perhaps more than any other position, there is a lot of playing time available for corners and safeties – in some cases, a number of snaps approaching those of starters at other spots. With the wide open offenses in the Big 12, an extra cornerback is often utilized, and West Virginia's dime and other special defensive alignments typically feature safeties and corners replacing one, if not two, linebackers. With those facts in hand, it should be easier to keep players that aren't on the field for the first play involved and upbeat, but it's still something to watch for. Complacency can set in, as a backup might feel like no matter what he does, he's not going to get that starting job this year. There aren't any signs of that from this group, but it's always something to watch for.
A final thing to track is the improvement of players who have been in the program for a year or two. Jeremy Tyler appeared headed for major snap counts two years ago after starting the final game against Iowa State, but he stagnated a bit in 2014. Jaylon Myers, in his final season, will be counted on to provide the type of quality depth discussed in the previous paragraph. Both should get extra snaps this spring with Worley and Harper out, and both need to take advantage of them – otherwise, they might find themselves closer to the bottom of the depth chart than the top come fall.
1) Develop trusted depth, especially at corner, behind Worley and Chestnut. At least four are needed to make defensive coordinator Tony Gibson happy, so locking down the number two spots, or at least determining those in serious contention for the jobs, is a key factor.
2) Eliminate the busts. Big plays due to misreads bad alignments or broken communications were the biggest problem for an otherwise very solid defense in 2014. Every snap, every call, every rep should have communication as its primary focus in the spring.
3) Create more big or negative plays. As noted above, getting sacks from safeties is often dependent on the scheme, but when the spur or bandit is sent on a blitz, or one or more rush as part of a passing situation package, they need to get home. Boosting the number of sacks is a huge bonus, but if the strong safeties can each get a couple more QB hits and hurries each, the effect on the pass defense will be measurable. In the same vein, interceptions are great, but batting balls down or breaking up passes are almost as vital, as incompletions can interrupt the continuity and flow prized by the passing attacks in the Big 12. Some of this flows from item #2 – players in correct position and playing the called coverage stand a better chance of producing these kinds of plays.