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 go deep in the secondary with a look at the cornerbacks.
NEWCOMERS SINCE SPRING
Jucos and freshmen will have the chance to make a collective impact at cornerback more than any other position on the team. Graduations and early departures have left the Mountaineers with little playing experience. On the junior college front, Mike Daniels and Elijah Battle hope to parlay their experience into playing time, and at least they have arrived and been present for much of the summer. That's in contrast to Rasul Douglas, who battled through eligibility issues last summer, and got little time to show what he could do in the first half of 2015. Daniels and Battle have at least gotten their feet wet a bit, but they face the learning process of a different defensive scheme and signal package, as well as the all-important familiarization task with their teammates, and especially with the safeties they will work with.
Freshmen Jake Long and Sean Mahone have the additional challenge of a couple less years of physical maturity, but given the massive depth and experience issues at corner, won't be eliminated from consideration. While neither would be expected to win a starting job, there is time available in situational packages. Sometimes newcomer fit into those roles more quickly, as they have fewer assignments to learn and cover right off the bat. A third corner often replaces a safety, that in turn moves down to a linebacking spot in long-yardage situations, and having one player who can focus on that task can help those special packages come together more quickly.
Another addition, who has been a bit under the radar but who will get a lot of early attention, is Iowa graduate transfer Maurice Fleming. The senior couldn't find enough playing time behind a pair of nationally-recognized corners on the Hawkeye squad, but he has the ability to dent the depth chart. That's five new players -- and the Mountaineers need at least two of them to progress rapidly and get to at least contributor status as soon as possible.
Assistant coach Danny Adams has probably the toughest assignment on the team this fall. He is replacing long-term starters, has a number of new players that he hasn't coached directly in a team situation yet, and doesn't have a player with appreciable game experience to fall back upon. He's also a first-year coach at WVU, which just adds in to that experience shortcoming. On the plus side, his program with the corners was well-defined and ready to go from the opening snap of spring practice, and he showed confidence in what he was teaching and the methods by which he imparted those lessons to his pupils. Can he continue to do that with another big group of newcomers? Did the veterans take to his approach, and will they be able to help get backups up to speed?
Adams discussed the ways in which he got to know his players during the spring, and he'll have to repeat that process this fall. However, there will also be the normal day-to-day grind of getting everyone onto the same learning page, and that's something that just doesn't happen quickly. He'll also be facing the pressure of upcoming games -- something that isn't present in spring drills. Adams has the dedication and grit to make it happen, but it's not going to be a situation where all questions are answered by Sept. 3.
PATH TO EXCELLENCE
Setting the bar at a reasonable achievement level is the first thing to do here. In the Big 12, no defense shuts down opponents. It's more a matter of taking advantage when third downs present themselves, creating turnovers, and recording negative plays to get offenses out of rhythm. That, in turn, results in changes of possession. WVU corners picked off nine passes a year ago, but only two of those were nabbed by returing corners (Nana Kyeremeh and Douglas). The cornerbacks need to generate 8-10 picks again this year to help WVU build another advantage in that department.
The second task is good tackling. Opponents are going to complete passes, so it's important to get the receivers on the ground after catches. Obviously, preventing catches behind the defense is important here, but so too is staying close enough to receivers so that they can be brought down soon after the catch is made. Preventing big yardage chunks off short and medium range passes is something that is often overlooked, but can be a big part of slowing opposing offenses. Every tackle that's made quickly means more yardage that has to be covered on succeeding plays, which gives the defense time to recover, rally and perhaps force another failed third down conversion further down the line. WVU has some big corners, but it also has some guys of smaller stature who will have to be crisp in their execution. That was a focus of one set of circuit drills this spring, and it's a place where the Mountaineers must excel.
WVU cornerbacks will also have to develop a thick skin. That's normal for any good corner, but there's no doubt that many observers will be primed to point the finger at corners when opponents complete passes and score. Is the mental strength in place to achieve that? If so, the corners could achieve above the rate at which many expect them to do, with the ability to bounce back from a bad play and produce some good ones paramount in that process.
The top four on the pre-fall depth chart -- Kyeremeh, Antonio Crawford, Douglas and Jordan Adams -- might be more unknown than the original cast of Saturday Night Live when they first took the stage. The names have certainly been bandied about, but only two have snaps at WVU, and none have been in the spotlight. That will all change next month, and the quartet will have to continue to improve while also fending off expected challenges from the newcomers. There could be a good bit of moving and shuffling on the depth chart as camp progresses, and that could easily extend into and through the season. Corners will have to be strong mentally, as it's likely that there is at least a three deep at each spot that could challenge for playing time. How will they respond to changing opportunities and assignments?
In such a competitive and charged environment, another factor that could weigh heavily is the way in which all the competitors work with each other. There's really no one that has a job locked up, and that could change the dynamic in the camp battles for playing time. For example, last year the starting jobs were set with Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut. Sure, the backups were trying to challenge them, but it was highly unlikely that either was going to be unseated by anything other than injury or suspension. That probably makes it a bit easier for the veterans to teach and help the newcomers. That's not to suggest that there won't be collaboration this year, but the competition at corner is going to be hot, and unless one or two players make quantum leaps, its likely to continue for much of the year. All of the players here will need to support each other if WVU is to build a reliable pass defense.
WVU does have the advantage of bringing in some bigger corners who have the physical ability to battle and challenge receivers in fights for position, preferred routes and the ball. Do they also have the speed and quickness to stay in contact? And will four or five players separate themselves enough to put a strong grip on their positions and playing time? Stay tuned, because this battle is just beginning.
Other Fall Outlook Previews
|Offensive Line||Wide Receivers||Running Backs||Tight Ends and Fullbacks||Quarterbacks|