West Virginia Football Fall Outlook: Safeties

Just like linebacker, the depth chart at safety for the West Virginia football team is filled with upperclassmen. There's more playing experience in this group, however, which gives hope that these positions can help anchor the pass defense in 2016.

In our spring previews, we focused on the players. In this fall run-up series, we'll go with some different angles on how newcomers and coaches will fit into the picture with the veterans and players who were on campus for the spring semester, and what has to happen for each group to excel. Today we examine the scene at the three safety positions.


WVU added junior college players Kyzir White and Toyous Avery over the summer, and as always the question of acclimation will be the most critical one in determining how much either can get on the field. It might not come in the first few games, but as they get more comfortable, one or both could shoulder their way into the mix. White has gotten the majority of attention, but Avery can't be discounted either. Avery also has an extra year of eligibility, as he is just a redshirt sophomore, but could wind up being important parts of the defense this fall. 

Also joining the group is JoVanni Stewart, who might look a bit undersized  for a safety but who brings a great deal of hitting ability. However, given the numbers of veterans on hand, plus the presence of the junior college duo, and it's more likely that he will see a redshirt season. The Mountaineers also welcomed three in-state walk-ons, including Dante Bonamico, Jordan Miller and Kody Shearer, who will all likely spend their first year as redshirts.

The big numbers of newcomers, which also include Dylan Tonkery, show that the coaching staff was concerned about depth at the safety spots, even with the returning veterans. 


During the spring, assistant coach Matt Caponi noted that he had to concentrate on the players on hand, but that he would also have a challenge in welcoming newcomers to the team and figuring out what they could do in fall practice. That's always a difficult job, but this task might be a bit more pressing, as the Mountaineers added a couple of players after spring who could compete for time. While every player has to get at least a chance to impress during the fall, there's no doubt that Avery and White will be on Caponi's radar during the early days of August.Two of Caponi's backups on the two-deep combine for only a handful of snaps on defensive plays from scrimmage.

Caponi, who brought a few new drills and more emphasis on tackling and physical play during the spring, will also need to bring along the redshirt freshmen and backups that have made a name for themselves in past years, but who still are fighting for spots on the somewhat surprising depth chart that was released for the fall. Whether that was for reasons of motivation or an accurate reflection of how the competition currently stands, he has a tough task in sorting out the numbers and abilities on his roster, and getting them slotted correctly into the three positions. His relationship with defensive coordinator Tony Gibson will likely help in that regard, as he knows what the Mountaineer defensive coordinator is looking for at the spur, bandit and free safety spots, and he'll have to lean on that relationship to help find the right mix.Don't be surprised to see some players move a bit, especially between spur and bandit, in order to form the strongest unit.


As at linebacker, it's tough to expect the safeties to reach the levels that West Virginia's position group did in 2015. Certainly there's a pillar of strength to build around in the form of Askew-Henry, but after that there are as many questions as answers. Coming into the fall, Marvin Gross and Jeremy Tyler hold down the starting spots at spur and bandit, respectively. Gross has been a linebacker and a member of WVU's passing situation packages, but will need to pick up the nuances of every down play at spur quickly, as he's backed up by redshirt freshman Deamonte Lindsay according to the depth chart. Tyler and backup Jarrod Harper, who filled in for Karl Joseph after the latter's season-ending injury in 2015, are a bit more stable at bandit.The individual talent is there, but it's performing as a unit that will be the first barrier to excellence. All will have to learn the tendencies of their teammates and play with the synergy displayed by Joseph, Askew-Henry and K.J. Dillon.

The second key is, as has been the case on every defensive unit, improvement from backups and the definition of roles. Shane Commodore, who played a great deal in the spring, should still be in the battle, and Kevin Williams will be watched to see if he can build on his early good returns of 2015. Lindsay, definitely a surprise with his second team spot after redshirting last year, will get a great deal of scrutiny, while senior special teamer Khairi Sharif is up first as the backup at free safety.At least two of those will need to show their ability to play when called upon, and also fill the many different roles that fall to the safeties. Backups at these positions often become linebackers or pass rushers in passing situations, making more playing time available than might appear at first glance. Caponi must find multiple players to fill those roles, in addition to the six he needs to man the three base positions. 

As often noted, it's rare when a team facing numerous questions at a position can see them all answered at the highest level. That's what would need to happen here to make WVU's safeties great, and that just isn't likely to happen right off the bat. Still, there is playing experience here, and this group has to help the cornerbacks, especially early in the season. Zone coverage is the first option to give that assistance, which also puts more pressure on the strong safeties to help in pass coverage -- yet another challenge to what are the toughest positions to play on the defense.


With 17 players on the roster, there should be enough bodies to fill the three safety positions. As is the case at linebacker, there's a decided experience gap between two groups of players who make up the roster, and the progression of the less experienced group will have a lot to do with how the depth chart eventually fills out for games. It's a fairly safe bet that the current list won't look the same once the Big 12 portion of the schedule begins, as there are too many close battles to think that there won't be some shuffling at the three positions.

One of the keys for the overall play and morale of this unit, too, is how they wind up accepting their roles, or finding a place where they can contribute. Can one or two of the bigger safeties become linebackers on third downs, but still be stout enough when a draw play comes downhill at them? Can one or two show a knack for getting to the quarterback, and become a blitzer? There are plenty of options, but not as much in terms of proven performance. Past Askew-Henry, Tyler, Harper and Gross all had spot contributions, but they will have to be much more than that for WVU's safeties to be the linchpins of the defense that Gibson needs. West Virginia builds its defensive scheme around the capabilities of the spurs and bandits, and if they can't be versatile, all-around performers, there will have to be more players available to step in and share roles. That's not impossible, but it is much more difficult than just plugging in a Dillon and a Joseph and not having to worry.

What did we think prior to spring practice? Check out our pre-spring thoughts!

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