West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen said the news was nauseating when he and defensive coordinator Tony Gibson initially found out. Many Mountaineer fans probably feel the same way, as the Mountaineers inexperienced defense must now cope with losing Dravon Askew-Henry, who was the only returning starter from last year's secondary. While fans, analysts and writers have almost three weeks to speculate and predict the impact of Askew-Henry's loss, coaches and players have no time to feel bad for themselves and must adopt the "next man up" philosophy, and that next man up is senior safety Jeremy Tyler.
Tyler, who is making his return at the free safety position after primarily working at bandit, looked as if he hasn't missed a beat at the spot that he played during his freshman and sophomore seasons. While Tyler isn't expected to be the impact defender that Askew-Henry was, he did record two interceptions in the Mountaineers scrimmage on Saturday. Tyler spoke about trying to step in and fill the void that Askew-Henry left.
"We just knew we had to come in and we had something to work for," Tyler said. "We knew how hard Dravon had worked for this so right now we're just trying to take it a step at a time and keep working every day."
Tyler also reflected on Askew-Henry's injury and his reaction to the news.
"Once Dravon had the incident I immediately thought about what happened last year," Tyler said, referring to the injury of Karl Joseph. "I thought (Dravon) was going to be out short-term but when I got the news I felt devastated for him because I knew how hard he worked for this."
Tyler will now have to follow in Askew-Henry's footsteps and adopt the same work ethic and mentality. Tyler has shown some flashes of potential though, and if he can continue to make the right reads on passing plays, stay in position and force turnovers it could go a long way in replacing Askew-Henry. Tyler discussed the reads he made that led to two interceptions in Saturday's scrimmage.
"I just saw the endzone," Tyler said. "I read the play and I saw Skyler (Howad) check. I did my job and made a play."
Tyler explained that making those reads is a much larger part of the equation when playing free safety. While bandits and spurs are also asked to cover receivers and running backs out of the backfield, they typically line up closer to the line and focus more on stopping the run.
"(The free safety spot requires) reading the quarterback, reading run, reading pass, and making the right fits because I'm the last line of defense so if the ball get past me it's bad."
Before Askew-Henry's injury, Jarrod Harper was competing with Jeremy Tyler for the starting bandit job. Now, he will almost certainly have that spot locked down with Tyler's position switch. Harper wasn't a full-time starter a year ago, but he has familiarity with the bandit position as well as overcoming the adversity that a season-ending injury brings. Harper expects the defense to come closer together after the injury and says he has already seen the group become more tight-knit.
"It definitely helps bring us together," Harper said. "Our safety room alone is a close-knit group, even outside of football. I think it will definitely bring us together."
Harper's comments about fellow safety Jeremy Tyler echoed that sentiment, saying that he sees Tyler ready to step in and play at a high level.
"You look at (Jeremy Tyler) and he can play all three positions," Harper said. "He definitely went out there today, held his ground and made plays. It's always the next man up. The next man up has always got to be ready to be the starter. When your name gets called you have to be ready to step up and execute."
That mentality helped Harper fill in for Karl Joseph last year and that experience should pay dividends for him in the season ahead.
"Last year, stepping in and starting as many games as I did got my feet wet," Tyler said. "I got to see what the game was like - the speed, the tempo. I'm definitely a lot more prepared mentally and physically then I was last year."
One key difference from last season, however, is that Harper could lean on veterans in the secondary like K.J. Dillon, Terrell Chestnut and Daryl Worley. This year, though, he and Jeremy Tyler are the veterans and must embrace that leadership role. The two safeties both praised the work ethic and leadership that Dravon-Henry provided and now they must follow suit and do the same.