West Virginia Assistant Matt Caponi Says Young Safeties Are "Understanding How We Practice"

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Sometimes it's the most basic of elements that is overlooked.

Case in point: Collegiate assistant coaches inevitably raise the idea that, about a week into fall camp, new players begin to truly understand how teams practice, and the rigors of collegiate competition in a day-in, day-out setting. Such has been the situation with Matt Caponi's safety unit, which lists seven true or redshirt freshmen among the 18 on the roster.  That's more than one in three who are inexperienced enough to need that lesson reiterated time and again over the first few days.

The setting then changed again when contact began, and those players had to adapt and adjust mentally as their bodies did  physically. It's one of the more interesting grinders of a question about any camp: Which players rise to the level of play, and deal with the psychological and physiological expectations, and which begin to wilt as the days turn into weeks? 

"About a week into camp now, all those guys are understanding how we practice and how we do things from an effort standpoint," Caponi said. "They are doing really well with the scheme and are getting some good quality reps and some good film work as well. They are developing. The production level has been pretty (good) for those guys. They just have to continue to give the effort, work hard and keep producing."

Among the most impressive has been Kyzir White. Though White was expected to come in and immediately compete for time at spur, the highly-touted junior college transfer has been exactly what the coaches envisioned in a long, agile athlete able to play the pass. The question will be if White can hold up against the power run game, an area Marvin Gross excelled in due to his time as a prep defensive end and a collegiate linebacker earlier in his career. White ran with the first team unit the most recent two times media was able to view a quick situational series, and he looked very comfortable with the speed of play and matching up physically. 

The Mountaineers also worked in Jarrod Harper at first-team bandit - Jeremy Tyler was injured, and did not participate in contact drills Tuesday, though his status is unknown - with Dravon Askew-Henry at free. The second team consisted of Shane Commodore and Dylan Tonkery at the hybrid slots and Khairi Sharif at free. Toyous Avery also saw time when the team went to a dime package on long yardage passing situations.

"The more guys we have who can play, the better we will be as a defense," Caponi said. "The best 11 will start, and we want to play 22. We will play 33 if we have the bodies."

The advantage of West Virginia's odd front, base 3-3-5 system is that its kept simple by coordinator Tony Gibson in an effort to get players to play faster and more downhill, as opposed to the proverbial paralysis by analysis that seemed to at least be partially responsible for the performances when WVU ran the 3-4 set under multiple coordinators. There are very few hesitation plays, ones where a defensive player tries to fool the offense after the snap. Instead, it's a direct assault on the pocket, and a penchant to play man and take chances as warranted.

"Our scheme is pretty simple," said Caponi, who ran a similar alignment under former West Virginia and then-Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, who brought Gibson to WVU early in his collegiate career. "We like to do that because it allows our guys not to think so much and just play fast. We are trying to utilize what they do best, and those guys can run and play in space and blitz and cover. We try to scheme it around what our guys do best."

And the most surefire way to find that isn't to load them up with what some term an IHOP menu of options, but rather to let the natural ability to play emerge in a structured - but not stifling - system. The Mountaineer coaches also rotate the players, shuffling the first, second and third teamers to ensure all can play and communicate with each other, and that there's not just a strict set of units, as there sometimes is with line play in a sport like hockey. West Virginia wants those interchangeable parts and personalities, but it will also have to begin to flesh out its starters over the next week-plus. 

"Right now, looking at the depth chart we are going to have eight or nine guys who can help us, whether that's defensively, on third down or on special teams," Caponi said. 


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