WVU returns a potential starter at each of the three safety positions, and does have a couple of seniors with respectable experience behind, making safety perhaps the best-stocked position of the spring. Still, a variety of factors, including a huge gap between the top five and the rest of the meeting room, along with a slower-than-hoped-for return to the field for the quarterback of the defense, makes this spring just as important for
Our classification system:
Starter: Players with established Division I starting experience
Contributor: Players with significant backup time at their primary position
Unproven: Those with only special teams experience or minimal playing time
STARTER: There's no question about the abilities of Dravon Askew-Henry and Kyzir White. Barring a major surprise (or catastrophe) they'll be the starters at free safety and spur, respectively, and will be anchors around which coordinator Tony Gibson rebuilds his defense. They'll also be available to move to other positions when WVU goes into its passing down packages, and it's unlikely they will be off the field no matter what the Mountaineers call to combat opposing offenses.
CONTRIBUTOR: Toyous Avery is the current depth chart front-runner at bandit, and will need to build on his performance in the Russell Athletic Bowl, where he had five tackles and a pass breakup. Marvin Gross has gotten a good bit of notoriety for his performance in White's stead in the last game of the 2016 regular season, but now it's on him to show he can produce over a longer haul. After racking up six tackles, two sacks and an interception against Baylor, expectations are high for him this year. Also a standout on special teams, he can contribute in a variety of ways. Shane Commodore didn't have the one splashy start that Gross did, but he's also a special teams maven, and he can fill in at multiple safety positions if necessary.
UNPROVEN: Jovanni Stewart and Derrek Pitts head a cast of players whose experience is very limited, and stand far behind the first five safeties discussed above. Every rep is important for them this spring if they are to make an impact. Walk-on Osman Kamara has earned some notice for his work and it's quite possible that he and Deamonte Lindsay could also compete for time on defense, and almost certainly will be part of special teams coverage units. Dante Bonamico and Brandan Rivers could push Pitts at bandit if he shows any problems in picking up the scheme early.
While the top tier of players looks to be fairly well established, there is still a ton of on-going with the safety spots. Askew-Henry has to get back into the flow of playing every day, and both he and White need to develop good synergy with Avery as they all play together for the first time this fall. Gross' use and positioning is a key part of the spring development period. Is he big enough to play multiple snaps against the run in addition to being deployed as a combo blitzer in passing situations? Finding time for him while White is also on the field is another item to watch.
Bridging the gap between the first five and the players in the final category is also important this spring. While the majority of base defensive snaps can be ably covered by the former, there are still a lot of situations that require more safeties, including those that have six and seven defensive backs. Add in special teams coverage units, which are also heavy with safeties, and there are numerous opportunities for the unproven players to get on the field. They could each fill roles as Gross and Commodore did for much of last year, and give the Mountaineers more ways in which to use and disguise different pass coverages.
While coaches don't want to overload players with too many assignments, the safety positions are ones that tend to lend themselves to great interoperability. Safeties in the WVU program often begin their careers at one position before finding a better fit at another (Karl Joseph is one of a number of recent examples), so there's often a good deal of experimentation in the spring. In addition to adding flexibility, this also gives players the chance to look at the defense from a different perspective and add to their overall understanding of what they see. While newcomers won't get a big dose of this, Gibson and safeties coach Matt Caponi will use some practice reps to try to open up these additional vistas.
Previously In The Series: