West Virginia's defense will have a number of new contributors in the fall, but there is one position that returns a collection of talented players with starting experience - the safety spot. The trio of Dravon Askew-Henry, Toyous Avery and Kyzir White has a number of snaps under its belt and should be the anchor of Tony Gibson's unit in 2017.
But as 2016 showed us, all it takes is one injury to change the dynamic of a position group and potentially the defense as a whole. That's why Matt Caponi is hoping to develop depth at all three spots in the spring. While Marvin Gross is the unquestioned No.2 at the spur position, the Mountaineers will depend on a number of underclassmen to step up and provide depth at the bandit and free spots. The good news? it looks like they have the answer in JoVanni Stewart, a redshirt freshman who Tony Gibson and Caponi have raved about.
"Having a year under his belt has helped (Stewart) come along way," said Caponi. "Not only in learning the scheme and understanding what he needs to do, but just the way he's been practicing and the effort he's been putting in too. That's what we coach. We coach effort the hardest in the spring and he has come along way and shows up on film by running to the football. We asked him to play spur and bandit last year and we started him out at spur this spring. Now we're going to move him to free safety. We have kind of gotten his feet wet at all the positions to see where he can help us produce. He's a guy who is going to get more reps over the last seven or eight practices because of the things he has done and the effort he has been practicing with."
Because Askew-Henry is still recovering from an ACL tear that occurred in fall camp a year ago, you are likely to see Stewart split first team free safety reps with special teams stalwart Shane Commodore in the spring game. But despite his slow recovery, Askew-Henry has still been an essential piece in West Virginia's spring practices.
"He's been in the meetings and he still helps with understanding what we want to do since he wasn't around in August because of the surgery," said Caponi. "He's been working his tail off in the weight room and in practice he's on the sideline helping the guys out. Most of the time he's doing extra strength stuff and getting himself ready to go."
West Virginia's spring depth chart lists freshman Derrek Pitts as the second team bandit safety, but (as expected) the true freshman still has a ways to go in learning the scheme and becoming physically ready to contribute right away. Still though, Caponi has come away impressed with the strides he has made in just seven practices and feels he is on the right trajectory to seeing the field.
"It's been a complete 180 from practice one to practice seven," said Caponi. "For a kid who should still be sitting in high school English class he has come a long way. At first it was more work ethic and effort that he needed to pick up from a practice standpoint, now being able to watch himself on film and correct mistakes helps me more than being up on a blackboard explaining what he needs to do. With the correlation of practicing harder and seeing himself on film it's 100 percent better."