"I originally started at spur and bandit, and then I moved to free safety this spring," the soft-spoken, almost shy Malik said after a recent practice. "It helps me know the defense better, and the better I know the defense the better player I can be. They have me going a little back and forth right now, but that's o.k. I look forward to the opportunity to play at either position."
After learning the bandit spot during the spring and fall of 2003, Malik was moved to free safety during the spring of 2004 to provide depth at that spot. At the time, returning veteran Jahmile Addae was still recovering from shoulder surgery, and talented backup Vince Beamer was still learning the position after missing much of the fall with a bad hamstring, so the coaching staff felt another player needed to learn the position.
Enter Malik, who, according to all accounts, learns quickly and is adaptable to new situations. In addition to changing positions, he also got a new coach, as he moved from Bruce Tall with the spurs and bandits to Tony Gibson with the defensive backs.
"Both coaches have their own unique styles, but I can take good coaching from anyone," Malik noted. "I am willing to learn, and I think I take coaching well."
That he did, but as spring turned to summer, a potential depth problem at another position, bandit arose. And once again, Malik was the player chosen to fill the gap.
"Coming into camp I was concentrating on playing safety. At pretty much the last minute, I got moved back to bandit, so I had to change my mindset," Malik said of his eventful fall. "Now I'm taking on fullbacks and do a lot of different things than I do at free safety, but whatever I need to do to help, I do."
That attitude is what makes Malik such a valuable asset to the Mountaineer defense, and it also helps as he continues to ping pong back and forth between the two positions. With Beamer in and out of the lineup due to abdominal problems during camp, Malik has made a few trips back to free safety since camp began. However, he has also been holding down the second-team bandit spot, and has gotten work with the first team on a couple of occasions when first-teamer Lawrence Audena was forced out of action.
Such position swapping would seem to be difficult for a seasoned veteran, much less a redshirt freshman, but Malik appears at ease with his job-hopping status.
"At first it was hard to move back and forth between the positions, especially when I moved right before fall camp, but I'm better with it now," Malik said. "Bandit is more run support. I have to work with the linebackers a lot, and I have to know where everyone is going on the front.
"I'm just willing to help the team at any position. Where they need me and whenever they call me, I will be ready. I'm still learning right now, and I am still working to learn everything about both positions."
Such an attitude is a very mature one for any college athlete, let alone one just past his twentieth birthday. Malik believes that his experience in waiting for admission to WVU helped him in that regard.
"It was hard coming in because I thought I was going to make it in August (2002)," Malik said of his early career. "It was tough waiting to see if I was going to qualify, and every time the phone rang I was rushing to it to see if it was Coach Hand telling me that I could come. It didn't happen, so I had to wait until January (2003) to enroll. It ended up being a win-win situation, though, because it gave me a year to mature.
"It also gave the the chance to get to know my sister better, because I moved in with her for a while during that time," Malik continued. "She is older than me, so I didn't really get to know her very well growing up. That was a great opportunity, and I got to know another part of my family much better."
The lessons Malik learned while waiting his turn have been put to immediate use on the field, as he has proven his worth at two key positions in the Mountaineer defense. And while patience was also one of the things he gained while awaiting his chance to join the team, it's not one that he will likely have to employ this season. Whether taking on blocks and banging heads with opposing running games or patrolling as the last line of defense against the pass, Malik figures to see a good bit of action for WVU in 2004.