West Virginia Spring Football 2016 Safety Preview

We continue moving toward the back of the defense with this look at safeties in our pre-spring series of looks at West Virginia's 2016 position groupings.


If linebacker was the hardest hit position in terms of departures, safety wasn't far behind. Two of the hardest-hitting, biggest impact defenders headed on for a shot at the NFL after completing their eligibility at West Virginia, leaving gaping holes to be filled. Karl Joseph and K.J. Dillon , both of whom were selected for participation in the NFL Combine, were terrors at spur and bandit during their Mountaineer careers.

Joseph piled up 284 tackles in 42 games for WVU, and had he not suffered a season-ending knee injury four games in, would have easily been over the 300 mark. He had 15.5 tackles for loss, picked off eight passes and broke up 12 more, forced eight fumbles and recovered six more, making him a quintessential “always around the ball” type of player. Dillon had 164 stops, with 17 of those behind the line, and broke up 21 pass attempts while picking off five others. He excelled in timing up his hits just as passes arrived, and was pound for pound likely the most powerful tackler in many WVU seasons.

WVU also lost Dayron Wilson, who did not play in 2015 due to injury. He had provided solid depth the year before, and was a special teams standout. While he didn't have any on-field contributions this past year, his was another spot that had to be filled via the recruiting class.


Kevin Williams drew some notice last year during fall camp, and had WVU not been so set at its three safety positions, might have avoided a redshirt. A hard-hitter with the knack of getting involved in the play, Williams will be the subject of a great deal of scrutiny this spring as new coach Matt Caponi looks to rebuild the front duo.

WVU will also have the services of Martinsburg native Deamonte Lindsay, who is fully cleared to play this year. An excellent athlete who played both offense and defense in high school, Lindsay will get a chance to translate his all around skills to the front safety positions. At six feet, two inches and 190 pounds, he has the physical tools, but will have to scrape off a year's worth of rust. It might be tough to see him making an immediate


West Virginia loaded up on defensive secondary players in this class, and at least four of them appear ticketed to begin their careers at one of the safety spots. Only one of them, Dylan Tonkery, was able to enroll in January, so he'll have the head start in the race for playing time. The biggest and most highly recruited of the four, Kyzir White, will join Toyous Avery and JoVanni Stewart sometime in July, and from there they will join the battle.

Caponi will have a huge job in figuring out which guys are able to play early, and he noted that is something that he will be tracking diligently once they arrive on campus. All will get live snaps to see where they might be in providing immediate help.

At this point, it would appear that White, due to his size and hitting ability, might have the best chance, but Avery shouldn't be counted out either. While he's not as big as White, his physical nature and ability against both the pass and the run could put him in the early mix.


On the good side, West Virginia appears solid at free safety, so there's not any immediate pressure for those at the back end of the defense to make a quick contribution. With Dravon Askew-Henry and Shane Commodore returning there, WVU has at least one anchor to count on.

The only bit of good news concerning Joseph's loss last year was that it gave Jarrod Harper eight games worth of starting experience. He responded with 36 tackles, but must become much more consistent, especially in getting to the ball and executing containment assignments. Jeremy Tyler, who began his career as a free safety, will also get first team snaps in the spring at one of the two strong safety spots, and he could also move back to free in a pinch. Behind that, however, it's wide open. Khairi Sharif had a handful of snaps in 2015, but there are only fellow walk-ons past them. Thus, the importance of the incoming recruits at safety, especially the two junior college signees. It might not be a surprise to see at least two, and maybe three, of the newcomers available for early duty.

Another factor – a new assistant coach in the form of Matt Caponi – also makes things even more interesting. He'll need the spring to get used to the players he has on hand, then be faced with another assimilation project over the summer when the new wave hits campus. That makes the spring even more important, as WVU must figure out the capabilities of the players that are on the team now in order to assure enough time to look at the three fall additions. That makes it almost – almost – as tough a job as the linebacker reconstruction.


Played one year for coach Aaron Flores at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas … redshirted first year at Coffeyville … helped team to an 8-3 record in 2015 and No. 14 national ranking … played in 11 games and finished with 69 tackles, including 39 solo stops, 5.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, five pass breakups and a team-high five interceptions … named All-Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference second team … No. 6 in the Jayhawk CC Conference in interceptions and fumble recoveries … season-high 10 tackles at Highland CC and Dodge City CC … had season highs of two interceptions at Iowa Western CC and two tackles for loss at Highland CC … played for coach Terrance Banks at Newton High in Covington, Ga. … finished with 34 tackles, including 21 solo stops, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery and a pass breakup as a senior … two-star recruit according to Scout … Scout recruiting analysts reported the potential safety is a physical player who always seems to be moving forward … has three years of eligibility remaining … was lightly recruited out of high school after a shoulder injury cut short his senior high school season … Mountaineer staff envisions Avery at strong safety … recruited primarily by Tony Gibson … was among the first players visited by new safeties coach Matt Caponi, who officially joined the staff Jan. 13 … West Virginia has four safeties committed for the 2016 class, including early enrollee Dylan Tonkery of Bridgeport and four-star Lackawanna (Pa.) College standout Kyzir White … lining up as a strong safety, free safety, or heads up on a receiver in the slot, he’s working up to either jam receivers, make a break on the ball or get in on tackles on either short passes or running plays... “West Virginia likes me at all three safety positions,” Avery said. “But they said initially it might be at free safety. We will see.” … seems best suited for the spur or free safety position, but he could also grow into a outside linebacker spot somewhere down the road … makes excellent breaks in pass coverage … gets his hands either on passes or on receivers in order to prevent completions … comfortable operating at the line of scrimmage … an aggressive player who should mesh well with WVU’s defense, which features multiple positions at which he can play … didn’t have the highest of profiles in terms of offers from other Division I schools … some of that may be due to his path out of high school, which was marred by a shoulder injury during his senior season that limited his recruitment … will have to guard against being over-aggressive, as polished passers in the Big 12 are excellent at making defenders bite on fakes or play action … but in the parlance of many defensive coaches, it’s much easier to say “Whoa” than “Go” … that reflects the thought that it’s easier to teach a bit of caution to an aggressive player than to instill that quality in one that is less active … showed his ability to adapt quickly, as he picked off two passes (returning one for a score) in Coffeyville’s season opening win … previously committed to Colorado State … can’t be expected to walk right in and fill the shoes of such players immediately … has the ability and frame to play linebacker at the next level … prior to his visit to West Virginia he had an official visit scheduled to Missouri for next weekend, January 29 … also offered by Colorado, Colorado State, Missouri and Kansas.

WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Toyous Avery – “Toyous Avery is a safety who can make a ton of plays. He’s got a nose for the ball.”

WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Toyous Avery – “Toyous is a three-for-three kid (three season of eligibility remaining and three years to use it). The kid makes plays, very productive on the junior college level. He could probably play any one of our three safety spots, though we’ll probably use him at the free or bandit. He’s a thick kid. We won’t have to put weight on him, because he’s already developed.”

WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson on Toyous Avery – “Toyous is a good-sized safety who runs well and is physical. We really like the way he plays.”

Three-year starter for coach Gary Joseph at Katy High … helped lead Katy to a 16-0 record and eighth straight 6A DII state title … team was ranked No. 1 in the nation by MaxPreps and USA Today computer rankings … part of a defense that allowed 3.9 points per game for the season … as a senior, finished with 101 tackles, 10 sacks, eight forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, three blocked kicks, 10 pass breakups and scored five touchdowns … two-time All-District 19-6A selection … two-star rating by Scout … played at the same high school as former Mountaineer receiver Jordan Thompson … Katy High head coach Gary Joseph says Stewart’s versatility is excellent at the prep level … exceptional speed with the ability to run with receivers in the passing-rich Big 12 conference … can turn and run downfield, and also closes well when the ball is in the air … surprisingly effective closer to the line of scrimmage, where Katy deployed him at times during his senior season … “He has that knack for coming off the edge, that burst where he can really affect people,” Joseph said. “He can drop the shoulder and get into and around people. The thing that sets him apart is his strength. He has good quickness and speed but that lower and upper body strength is big.” … disrupts plays in opposing backfields, and is relentless in pursuit, showing the ability to chase down plays away from his side of the field … also excellent at staying alive while the ball is in play … “JoVanni was very intrigued by the West Virginia program because of Jordan Thompson, and because we have a couple kids who are West Virginia fans,” Joseph said. “JoVanni went up there in 18 inches of snow, and wasn’t fazed by it. He really liked it there and took it over other offers.” … Katy holds a Texas state record eight state titles, and won the national championship this past season … “He may not be the ideal size, but you are getting a football player, a high-energy guy who practices hard, plays extremely hard and is very athletic,” Joseph said. … Stewart played corner his sophomore year, then nickel back the last two years … “He’s a very dynamic kid who makes plays,” Joseph said. “You aren’t going to have to convince him to practice or play hard. He has played outside ‘backer in our 3-4. Kid has exceptional strength. He ran relays in track. He can take on people, and is quick enough to not let people latch on to him. He’s self-motivated. It’s the ones who get in the weight room and work out and want to play are the ones who are great. That’s what I look for, a football player.” … has multiple highlights where he not only forces a fumble but also scoops it up to return it for extra yardage … WVU to use him as a cornerback blitzer in regular pass defenses, or from a slot defender role when the Mountaineers add extra defensive backs in long yardage situations … “I have committed to West V,” Stewart told BlueGoldNews.com. “I’m very excited about my decision.” … main issue, and one that probably kept him from more offers, is his height … Just 5-9, Stewart will be at a disadvantage in one-on-one jump ball situations … have to offset that with good positioning and by timing hits to break up passes … had offers from all three service academies as well as New Mexico State and UTEP, and grabbed a handful more from non-Power Five schools during the last month of the recruiting process, but WVU was certainly his best offer … will have to show that he’s capable of competing in the strength category with receivers that will hold a distinct size advantage over him … shouldn’t be counted on as a first-year contributor, and will likely spend a year or two preparing himself for significant action … also offered by Air Force, Army, Navy, UTSA and UTEP.

WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on JoVanni Stewart – “JoVanni Stewart is the type of guy who is always around the ball. He’s fast, and he likes to hit. That’s what we want in our defensive backs.”

WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on JoVanni Stewart – “JoVanni Stewart maybe affects the ball as good as anybody I’ve seen on film. It’s incredible how many plays that kid makes. When it comes down to a guy making plays and affecting the game, that’s something Karl (Joseph) did. He was going to do at least one thing in every game that was going to change that game. JoVanni was like that for his high school team. He played on a high school team at Katy that was as good as any in the country, and he was the guy who made them go on defense. I think he was terribly underrecruited. Part of that was his height, and part of that was because he was a safety who played in the box. Well, that’s exactly how we use our safeties at times, so he fit us perfectly. If you turn on his highlight tape, the first 20 plays are of him creating turnovers or scoring touchdowns. It’s incredible.”

WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson on JoVanni Stewart – “JoVanni Stewart comes from the No. 1 team in the nation, and he was probably the best defensive player on that team in our opinion. The reason he didn’t have offers from everyone was because of his height. But he’s just a straight runnin’ football player. He’s athletic, creates havoc, tackles, gets turnovers. Is just relentless.”

Graduated high school early and enrolled at WVU for the start of the spring semester on Jan. 11, 2016 … three-year starter for coach Josh Nicewarmer at Bridgeport High … two-time West Virginia All-State Class AA first-team pick (2014-15) … USA TODAY American Family Insurance All-USA West Virginia first-team selection in 2015 … helped Bridgeport to three straight Class AA state championships and a 39-2-1 record in that time … started three years at safety and recorded 72 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and two interceptions … had 34 tackles with five tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2015 … older brother Wes Tonkery was a linebacker at West Virginia from 2011-14 … committed on Dec. 7, 2014, the same day WVU offered a scholarship … because of his firm pledge, few other schools ever got in the mix … “It’s just an awesome feeling,” Tonkery said soon after his verbal. “West Virginia has been the main school for our family for a long time. We’ve all supported them and my older brother is finishing up there. It’s just a great feeling. Our head coach came into school and talked to me in person about the offer. I couldn’t believe it when he told me. It’s just such an amazing feeling. It’s all I’ve thought about all day just how lucky I am.” … the contact between Tonkery and the Mountaineers had been minimal to that point, and despite brief interaction along the way, no indication was given an offer was on the horizon, making the moment more special … “They had never really sent me letter or been in much contact at all,” Tonkery said. “I never knew anything about it. It’s just a special moment altogether.” … started at running back for two seasons, recording 3,401 yards on 378 carries with 40 touchdowns in his career … ran for 1,534 yards on 152 carries, averaging 10.1 yards per carry, with 19 touchdowns in 2015 … ran for 200 or more yards in two games and 100 or more yards in eight games … a three-star recruit ,according to Scout, which also listed him as the No. 7 safety prospect in the East … good size for the position … frame could add even more than his 195 pounds … took less than a day for him to make a commitment … versatility should help as he can play safety, or grow into a linebacker … was the third verbal in the class … “It doesn’t make a difference to me where I play,” Tonkery said. “I’m happy to help anyway I can.” … ranked as the third best prospect in the state by Scout.com behind Reese Donahue and Tyrhee Pratt, though only Donahue is part of WVU’s class of 2016, as Pratt did not sign because of concerns he will qualify academically.

WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Dylan Tonkery – “Dylan is a quality player. He is very deserving of being at West Virginia University and playing in the Big 12. I’m excited to see how good a player he can become in the next four or five years.”

WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Dylan Tonkery – “A Tonk’ is a Tonk’. Dylan is like Wes, in that he’s blue-collar, productive, not going to say two words. He’s just going to show up every day, do what he’s supposed to do, and then when you put him on the field, he’s going to make plays. That was Wes, and that’s also Dylan. Wes certainly was a pretty productive player for us, and I think Dylan will be as well. Dylan was an even better high school player than Wes, so hopefully that translates into something special.”

WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson on Dylan Tonkery – “Dylan Tonkery knows how to win. His teams won three state championships, and he was the MVP. He can do anything. He’s athletic, can run, all the things you look for.”

Played two seasons for coach Mark Duda at Lackawanna College … helped team to an 8-2 record in 2015 … finished that season with 37 tackles, two tackles for loss, four breakups, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries … made 34 tackles in 2014, adding two pass breakups, 1.5 tackles for loss and one interception … 2015 All-Northeast Football Conference first team … 2014 All-Northeast Football Conference Third Team … previously played for Randy Cuthbert as a senior at Emmaus High and coach Joe Bottiglieri his previous three years … four-star recruit according Scout and the No. 27 junior college prospect according to Scout … made his decision on signing day after trimming list to WVU and Southern Cal … took an official visit to both places … decided to follow the family path to West Virginia where his older brothers Kevin and Ka’Raun played … Ka’Raun is a receiver entering his junior season at WVU … brother Kevin plays for the NFL’s Chicago Bears, having been drafted in the first round last spring … “In the back of my head, I always knew the West Virginia coaches had my best interests at heart,” White said. “They stayed in contact with me. As soon as I told my brothers, they were really excited.” … committed to the Mountaineers in June … projects as a potential starter at spur safety, where KJ Dillon has graduated … finished his sophomore season with 37 tackles, three interceptions, four pass breakups and two fumble recoveries - both of which he returned for touchdowns … has three years to play two … a physical, imposing player with decent speed … more of a big hitter that belongs closer to the line of scrimmage … valuable in run support … “Obviously I see the success that Kevin had there, but I’m my own man, and I made the decision based on what was best for me,” White said. “I was going to pick a school where I fit the best and had the most opportunities, and it just worked out that it was West Virginia.” … weighing larger in his decision was the communication between White and the Mountaineer coaching staff, which was early to offer … “I just felt really comfortable around them,” White said of the West Virginia assistants. “They communicate with me a lot. Some schools just threw an offer out there, and I couldn’t tell you the coaches names at all. I wanted to go somewhere where I have a good relationship with coaches.” … coverage isn’t an overwhelming weakness, but it’s not at the top of what he does well … can collapse well on underneath routes … a read and react player … high football IQ allows him to quickly respond to what he sees … was the 11th commit of the class … “I played in the back last year, but this year the coaches said that I’ll move down some and get to blitz and play closer to the line,” White said. “The guy that was in that position last year was gone, so I’ll get the chance to move around some more and get adjusted. I’ve always been a physical player, but I didn’t really switch over to defense until later in my career. I was a running back and wide receiver, but as I got bigger I grew into a defensive role, and I am going to like getting closer to the line and being able to blitz.” … not all that smooth and quick, but the overall speed is decent, and enough to play the position … isn’t a deep safety, and won’t be asked to take that responsibility in Morgantown … not a man coverage player … more of a downhill player … makes plays in front of him … can come into the box as a blitzer or a great provider in run support … also offered by Arizona, Arizona State, Illinois, Louisville, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Penn State, Pitt and USC.

WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Kyzir White – “He is 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. He is a fierce hitter. He can cover ground. He is fast, and he is always around the ball. He will have a pretty good opportunity to step in and do what K.J. (Dillon) did for us the last four years.”

WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Kyzir White – “I don’t know if you can say enough good things about Kyzir. He’s a guy we really targeted in the recruiting process from day one. For us, he was the guy we wanted to come in to replace Karl (Joseph) or K.J. (Dillon). Karl’s replacement (Jarrod Harper) got thrown into the fire this season after he got hurt. But we still need someone to step in for K.J., and that very well could be Kyzir. He’ll come up and hit you, but he’s also really athletic. Everyone who knows the White family says he’s the best athlete of the bunch. That’s a big statement, but hopefully they’re right. He’s a great kid. It’s interesting to have recruited each of the three brothers, because they are all distinctly different. They are all their own guy. I think Kyzir has a chance to be a really, really good player.”

WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson on Kyzir White – “Kyzir is a difference maker. He’s big, athletic, physical. He’s athletic enough that he could probably play corner if we needed him to; he’s that skilled. But we’re going to put him at spur and turn him loose. We’re counting on big things out of him.”

Previously In The Series:

Defensive Line


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