After losing All-American bandit safety Karl Joseph just four games in last year, Tony Gibson's West Virginia defense wasn't just hit hard, but frankly rocked by a pair of injuries over the last week. First, All-Big 12 free safety Dravon Askew-Henry was lost for the season with an ACL tear. It badly depleted an already thin secondary, and took away its lone returning starter from last season if one doesn't factor Jarrod Harper, who replaced Joseph for much of last season.
Then, mere days later, projected back-up middle linebacker Brendan Ferns was lost to the same injury, also for the season. It was yet another contributor gone on a defense already missing nine of 11 starters from last season, the lone returners being both defensive ends in Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown. Add in the loss of reserve nose tackle Jaleel Fields (knee) and back-up tackle Xavier Pegues (offseason shoulder surgery), and the line - which appeared to be the strength at one point - is also showing some depth concerns.
Yet one would never know it judging by the scrimmage on Saturday. Sure, the offensive was inept, the timing poor, the effort and execution worse. But at least portions of that, including the fact that the defense brought intensity and focus, is encouraging. The performance, which included frankly dominating a solid receiving unit, was everything that could be expected, especially with forcing five turnovers combined against an offense which scored just 23 points on more than 100 plays.
Jeremy Tyler , the senior safety who returned an interception for a touchdown in the scrimmage, responded to what he thought most stood out after hearing of Askew-Henry's injury. It was Tyler who got first crack at the vacated free safety slot.
"We just knew that we had to come in and we knew we had something to work for," he said. "We knew how hard Dravon worked for this. Right now we’re trying to take a step at a time and keep working every day and get to our main goal."
Safeties coach Matt Caponi addressed a few issues the team faces, one being how much depth the team can continue to overcome as the injuries mount. When asked about whether he'd swap safeties and cornerbacks, Caponi shut down that somewhat counterintuitive idea immediately.
"Not right now," Caponi said. "We have those guys focusing on playing corner and the safeties focusing on playing safety. If it came to it and maybe we had some depth issues, then maybe, but we’re solid right now where we are."
Blue Adams, in his first season as an assistant for WVU this year, understands his group will be tasked with defending Big 12 stars such as Baylor's K.D. Cannon, Oklahoma's Dede Westbrook and Oklahoma State's Marcell Ateman, who's scheduled back from foot surgery by October. When asked about preparing for opponents, Adams, above, noted that it's "about us. It’s always about us. We’re always focusing on us. That’s all we can do."
Cornerback Rasul Douglas, penciled in early as one of the two starters along with Antonio Crawford, said the transition for the every level of the defense would be difficult, but not impossible.
"You just have to come in and be eager to learn and stay in the playbook as much as you can," Douglas said. "Watch a lot of film. Film doesn’t lie, so watching film you learn everything; tendencies, what the offense is looking for, what the quarterback is looking for."