No team in the Big 12, and maybe even the entire country, has more to replace in the secondary this year than West Virginia does.
Four of the Mountaineers five secondary players from last season will not be wearing the flying WV this fall. Junior safety Dravon Askew-Henry is the only season-long starter from last year’s secondary who will be returning next season, so defensive coordinator Tony Gibson and new cornerbacks coach Blue Adams have a long summer ahead of them when it comes to finding suitable replacements for those who have left the program.
Despite not getting as much draft hype as fellow safety Karl Joseph, KJ Dillon made a name for himself last year because of the way he played the SPUR position in Gibson’s 3-3-5 defense with such reckless abandon.
Because of the nature of the position, and the way the man occupying it has to match up with slot receivers, tight ends, and help out in the running game, finding a replacement for Dillon might be priority No. 1 for Gibson right now.
“It’s really important. That is the key position in this defense because there is so much that we ask from that guy as far as man coverage, blitzing and being part of the run. That position for us is the key to how we succeed,” Gibson said.
So far, the task of filling that role has been given to redshirt junior Marvin Gross Jr., who has played three positions in his last three years of football. A standout defensive end at Dunbar High School in Baltimore, Maryland, Gross shifted to the BUCK linebacker spot in Gibson’s defense in his first year at WVU.
After redshirting in 2014, Gross moved to a backup role at the SPUR position last year, as well as cutting his teeth on WVU’s special teams. Now, it’s his time to take a run at securing the starting spot, and according to Gibson, the results have been a mixed bag so far.
“He’s doing OK. At times it gets to be a little much for him. The kid was a defensive end in high school, a linebacker for his first couple of years here, and now we’re putting him in coverage a lot,” Gibson said.
“He’s learning, and he’s done a really good job up to this point. He’s going to be a guy that we can use at certain times…We like the way he’s come along, and he just needs to keep getting better…Obviously fall camp is going to be crucial for him.”
While the SPUR position carries plenty of weight in this defense, the corner spots are up for grabs too, and with a new position coach leading the way it’s an open audition. Playing time is up for grabs for the man who proves himself worthy of it.
“Oh yeah, nobody has a job there. I told you guys two weeks ago I though (Antonio) Crawford was playing as good as anybody at that position, and Nana (Kyeremeh) for the last few weeks is really coming on. I thought he played well today. Really, you didn’t notice him, which is always good with a corner,” Gibson said after last Saturday’s practice.
Kyeremeh makes logistical sense as a plug-in player for one of the corner spots. As a redshirt senior, he has more knowledge of the terminology and assignments in this defense than most if not all of the players in gold and blue right now. He has played in 30 career games, with one start to his name so far, but don’t let that lead you to believe he’ll be lost out on the field if he does end up winning the starting job.
“A lot of times when kids become seniors a lot of things change for them, and he’s one of those guys. You see it a lot. I think he knows that now it’s his time and guys are looking up to him. He’s kind of the old man in that room. He’s a guy that’s been there, and he’s a great kid. I love everything about the kid. He’s wonderful to be around. He’s a team guy. He’s smart; does what he needs to do,” Gibson said.
At the other corner spot, Rasul Douglas has been tabbed as the early frontrunner on WVU’s spring depth chart, which undoubtedly will look vastly different come August and fall camp.
Douglas has played well in spring, picking off Skyler Howard and taking it back for a touchdown in last Saturday’s open portion of practice. For Douglas, and all the other guys trying to prove they belong running with the ones, 11-on-11 drills provide a chance to prove your worth against the best competition your team has to offer.
“I think that’s the benefit of getting a lot of live reps is that you have all of those snaps to kind of evaluate guys against different guys. I’m excited that we can get that many snaps and not take any casualties, or injuries, or something like that,” Blue Adams said.
With spring practice winding down, those opportunities are becoming something of a premium, but one major opportunity still remains with the Gold-Blue Spring Game this Saturday. For coach Adams, it provides another priceless chance to see how his players react in a game-like scenario.
“In my opinion, any time you can change it up, different venues, different environments, I think that’s good for seeing how those guys develop and how they stay and work their technique. Sometimes with young guys, if you change the venue or change the flow of practice then they kind of get out of whack,” Adams said.
“When you play on Saturday under those circumstances everything is going to be nice; peaches and cream. I think the change of venue and just the hype of a spring game will add a different dimension to it. At the end of the day, you still want to get better. You want to be consistently better on a day-in, day-out basis.”