One year ago, WVU's defense took one of the biggest hits imaginable when Karl Joseph suffered a college career-ending knee injury after playing in just four games. The Mountaineer defense certainly suffered with Joseph out over the final two-thirds of the season, as that loss came right as WVU was entering the most difficult part of its schedule. It's not a stretch to say that Joseph's absence cost the Mountaineers at least one win -- and maybe more -- in 2015.
Somehow, though, West Virginia weathered the storm. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson shuffled and patched and came up with one of the best defenses in the offense-rich Big 12. Now, though he has to do it again -- and with fewer proven performers than he could fall back on in a year ago.
Junior safety Dravon Askew-Henry suffered a knee injury in practice on Wednesday and will miss the entire 2016 season, and his loss might be even more devastating to WVU than that of Joseph last year. That's not to imply that Askew-Henry is necessarily a better player than Joseph. The departed WVU stalwart is an NFL talent, as evidenced by his draft pick while still coming off rehab form his knee injury and subsequent surgery. However, Askew-Henry was being counted on as the anchor to the rebuilding Mountaineer secondary this year, and there simply aren't as many proven performers that can help fill the void he leaves.
When Joseph went down, it was bad enough. However, K.J. Dillon was still there to count on. So too were experienced cornerbacks in Terrell Chestnut and Daryl Worley, not to mention Askew-Henry himself. Note that all of those graduate players are getting NFL shots at the moment. This year, there's no such cushion to fall back on.
Immediately behind Askew-Henry is Toyous Avery, who has been working his way up the depth chart, but who has exactly zero Division I snaps. In front of A-H in the defensive alignment, the spur and bandit are Marvin Gross and Jeremy Tyler. While both have played, neither has produced at the levels that Dillon and company had when they had to anchor the defense in Joseph's absence. Next up are Kyzir White and Jarrod Harper, and while there's at least some experience for the latter (he as called upon when Joseph went down), no one was thinking either would be mainstays when the Mountaineers opened the season against Missouri. Of course, this doesn't mean that they can't do so, but it does mean that they will have to take a bigger load than anticipated. Everyone, not just one or two guys in the secondary, will have to play and produce more, and that's a lot to ask for and expect.
This injury also opens the gates for more positional shuffling. Tyler was a free safety during his first year at WVU, and even started the Mountaineers' finale at free safety in 2013 against Iowa State. He could get a look back at free, depending on how Avery continues to progress. That would cause a domino effect at bandit, bringing Harper and perhaps Shane Commodore back into the mix.
Of course, West Virginia's coaches won't moan about this. They'll espouse the "next man up" mantra, which is exactly what they should, and must, do in order to prepare the team without one of its best players. However, that doesn't change the fact that this is a big smack in the face to a defense that was already undergoing a major restructuring
“This is a tremendous loss for our football team,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said in a prepared release. “Without a doubt Dravon was one of our leaders on and off the field. We will support him through his recovery and work with him to get him 100 percent back to health.”
Askew-Henry, a native of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, has started all 26 career games and was the fourth-leading tackler last year and was the top returning tackler for the Mountaineers heading into the 2016 season.
As a sophomore in 2015, Askew-Henry started all 13 games and posted 59 tackles, including 47 unassisted, a tackle for loss, an interception and four pass breakups. He had a team-high seven tackles against Arizona State in the Cactus Bowl and also posted seven against Oklahoma State.
In 2014, he was named a true freshman All-American by ESPN.com after starting all 13 games and finishing with 45 tackles, including 36 unassisted tackles, one tackle for loss, two interceptions and two pass breakups. He had a career-high eight tackles, all unassisted, against Texas A&M in the Liberty Bowl.