Cornering The Field

One of West Virginia's priorities during spring football practice has been to identify players at the cornerback position to replace departed seniors Anthony Mims and Dee McCann. Veteran returnees Larry Williams and Antonio Lewis have been the frontrunners at those vital spots so far, but an interesting and spirited battle has developed for the backup positions.

One of the youngsters in the fight for playing time is redshirt freshman Kent Richardson. A confident player who isn't as vocal as some of WVU's brash corners in the Rich Rodriguez era (he certainly doesn't approach the on-field volume of Lewis or an Adam Jones), Richardson nonetheless is pleased by his progress to date, which has seen him taking snaps with the second unit for much of the spring.

"I think I'm progressing well," Richardson said recently. "I am learning the plays and the defense better as a whole. I'm understanding what everyone else is doing a little better now, and that's important."

Seamless play in the secondary, with good communication among the corners, free safety, spur and bandit, is obviously vital in constructing good pass defense, and the pressure to execute every call correctly is greater there than any other spot on that side of the ball. While a blown assignment on the defensive line might result in a ten-yard run for the offense, one in the secondary could easily yield six points.

Because of that, West Virginia often puts its defensive backs at free safety for a while early in their careers, because it puts them in a better spot to learn the entire pass coverage scheme. However, for Richardson, the reverse was true.

"It's easier at corner for me, because the safeties have to make calls. You have to let everyone know what they are supposed to be doing," he explained. "But at corner, you just have to know your assignment, and your alignment, and after that you just have to do what you are taught."

Richardson has been doing enough of that to hold down a second-team spot opposite Vaughn Rivers for most of the spring, but he understands that he can't have tunnel vision at his position. He can't ignore what his backfield teammates are doing. He knows the importance of teamwork on the back end, and it appears that he is growing more comfortable with that aspect of the game with every spring practice. And as the spring winds down, he is looking to solidify that spot on the second team heading into the fall.

Another area in which the Tallahassee, Fla. native hopes to make his mark is on WVU's long yardage defensive sets.

"We haven't put any third down packages in yet, but I'm pretty confident I will be involved there as well," said the graduate of Rickards High School. "I like the five or six defensive back packages better. You get more chances to show what you have and what you are capable of doing. You need different things from each position back there, and when you have more defensive backs there are more chances to play and more jobs to do."

To play in those sets, defensive backs need to have a combination of good open field coverage skills and good tackling ability, as the offense might choose to throw the ball downfield (thus the need for good cover skills), or dump it off short (necessitating good tackling). At six feet and 195 pounds, the solidly-build Richardson appears to have the tools to meet both requirements. He has already demonstrated the toughness necessary, having played much of the spring with a broken hand. The injury, requiring a big wrap to protect the broken bone, has not kept him out of any practices.

"I really can't feel it when it's wrapped up. I do have some problems catching the ball, but it doesn't bother me wrapping up and tackling or anything like that," Richardson said dismissively.

"Kent is playing with a broken hand but has been out there every day and hasn't missed a practice," Mountaineer defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said with obvious admiration.

While such an injury sounds like a small matter, it's really anything but. A defensive back also uses his hands at the line to knock receivers off their routes, and playing without the full use of both hands is a handicap. However, Richardson doesn't use that as an excuse, and has battled hard to make his presence known. After redshirting last season, he doesn't want to miss any opportunity to make his mark early, and thus hasn't let the distraction of the injury affect his performance, let alone keep him off the field.

So far, Richardson believes that he and his secondary mates have done a good job in their mission to replace the departed seniors from last year's 11-1 Sugar Bowl championship squad.

"I think we've stepped up as a group, and I don't think we'll have a lot of problems on defense," he analyzed. "The linebackers, the d-line, everyone is playing well."

Casteel, although being more cautious in his assessment, agrees that Richardson has a bright future in front of him.

"He's just a young guy that is learning how to play," Casteel reminded. "He's strong and he has good fundamentals. He has a lot of ability. He just has to catch up with the speed of the game."

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