West Virginia's Starting Safety Slots Appear Set. Can the Mountaineers Establish The Depth Desired Before The Opener?

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia's starting safety positions are set. Now the goal is depth before the Mountaineers open on Sept. 3 against SEC foe Missouri.

Position coach Matt Caponi confirmed that WVU has penciled in junior college transfer Kyzir White at spur, returning starter Jarrod Harper at bandit, and Jeremy Tyler at the free safety slot vacated when All-Big 12 selection Dravon Askew-Henry was lost for the season with an ACL tear during camp.

"Jeremy has the most experience (there) and knows the position," Caponi said. "A couple years ago he was battling Dravon for that spot, so he knows it well and plays it well. He’s kind of separated himself a little bit for that spot."

The same goes for White, who has proven too valuable to sit in his first season in the program. The rangy 6-2, 221-pounder has been stout against the run and reliable in pass coverage, using his frame and wingspan to eat up space and passing lanes. While Marvin Gross was a bit ahead of White in playing the run via his previous experience at linebacker, the combination of a shoulder injury which caused him to miss time, along with White's emergence, will have the redshirt junior in a reserve role to start the season.

"Spur, we can still play a handful of guys there," Caponi said. "Kyzir is our number one right now, but there’s two or three guys behind him. Marvin and Jeremy can even play a little bit of spur, so we got some depth."

Harper claimed the job at bandit, which was no surprise after Tyler - his main competition at the position - was moved to free to fill-in for Henry. Harper started in the final nine games of last season, replacing injured All-American Karl Joseph, who was ruled out for the year after the fourth game (the earliest possible time he could have been ruled as such without being able to file for a medical redshirt,) due to an ACL tear. Harper finished with 36 tackles, 29 solo, at the bandit position, while also recovering his first career fumble. He missed the spring after offseason shoulder surgery, but his play and leadership qualities were obvious throughout fall camp.

The reserves behind Harper and Tyler are still to be determined. West Virginia has mixed and matched players there, both to see who fits best at what position, and what combination of players is most effective together. And while the first team seems to be set - at least barring unforeseen circumstance or injury - the reserve spots at bandit and free remain open. Of now, Toyous Avery is the second-team free safety after a good camp. The Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College transfer understands the system and scheme and has picked up on his responsibilities and fit as well. Avery, 5-11, 194 pounds, redshirted his first season at Coffeyville, and thus has three years of eligibility remaining.

"From a defensive scheme standpoint, what we do makes it easier for younger guys to be able to come in and help us and make an impact," Caponi said. "(Avery) has been on it; He has picked things up quickly and he has taken the coaching and the techniques and certain things we want him to do. He has been a surprise and he's given us a cushion at the free safety spot."

Special teams stalwart Khairi Sharif has also made a push for the free safety spot. But the senior has also seen snaps at bandit, and will be valuable as a reserve at multiple positions.

"He had a good camp and he's another one of those swing guys," Caponi said. "He has mostly played free safety, but we mixed and matched him and put him at bandit. He knows it, but it's now about getting him the physical reps."

Shane Commodore is also battling for time, and is still listed as the second team bandit behind Harper. Commodore, a junior from Morgantown (W.Va.) High, had slid back to free at times this camp, but appears better suited for the run-supporting position closer to the line of scrimmage.

West Virginia's goal, other than beginning to finalize the two-deep before getting into the actual game week of Missouri prep on Sunday, is to continue to develop additional comfort at each position on a per-player basis. With highs forecast in the 90s this weekend and into Monday, the coaching staff will also get to again test the depth when heat is a factor.

"It’s just unfair, especially early in the season when it’s hot, to have guys play 70, 80, 90 snaps a game," Caponi said. "So we talk about the depth and building the depth. I think that’s going to help us out over the course of a 12, 13, 14 game season, getting guys who can play 15, 20 snaps a game and have some confidence in them. Maybe send some of those guys out in third down situations as well, just to give them a breather and kind of protect them so they don’t have to see as many plays over the course of the game and season."

Sharif, below, details his first day trying bandit, on Aug. 13, when West Virginia's defense held the first team offense to just one score over 10 possessions. Sharif said then that he felt comfortable at either free or bandit, and that he was "versatile. I've played corner. I've played free safety. Wherever I'm best at and can help the team win, whether it's bandit, free or special teams, I'm willing to do my part."



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