'Early and Often'

Many Mountaineer fans on our message boards have killed time by trying to guess the first play in Saturday's opener against Marshall. If the Thundering Herd opens the game on offense, West Virginia defensive backs coach Tony Gibson has a guess as to what happens on the first play.

"I'd be shocked if the first play of the game wasn't a play-action or something deep just to test us out. We'll see. Just don't let them get over our head on the first play," says Gibson.

The reason Gibson expects to see plenty of deep passes against his defensive backfield is because of the perceived lack of experience. Gone are last year's starting cornerbacks Anthony Mims and Dee McCann. Also gone is free safety Jahmile Addae. Losing that type of experience sounds like a bad thing, but both of this year's cornerbacks (Larry Williams and Antonio Lewis) have played a lot of football over the past few years.

"I can see them getting better everyday," Gibson says of his starters. "We've got less than a week before we kick it off, but I'd be very surprised if they weren't ready to play."

Williams in particular is a little bit different from some of the past cornerbacks that wore blue and gold. He's shown a lot of aggressiveness in practice both this year and in the past, whereas Mims was more of a "play it safe" kind of guy. In his lone start last season (against Virginia Tech in place of an injured Mims), Williams was not as aggressive as the Mountaineer coaches would have liked. Gibson thinks that problem is a thing of the past.

"Anthony Mims was a kid that was really smart, and knew what to do all the time. Larry Williams is more of a risk taker, who's pretty aggressive around the football," he says, adding that Williams has shown a lot of confidence both in the spring and throughout fall practices.

Lewis, like Williams, has been patient in waiting for his turn to play. He was actually named the starter for last season's opening game at Syracuse, but a foot injury suffered in that game limited him. By the time he was healthy, senior Dee McCann was playing the best football of his career. Still, Lewis saw as many snaps as Mims and McCann last season, and Gibson thinks he stacks up quite well with other Mountaineer boundary corners of the past few years.

"Antonio Lewis is about the same as what we've had going back to Brian King and Pacman. They're all that same type of player: they have explosion and go get the ball," he said of the junior from Waldorf, Md.

Behind those two is veteran Vaughn Rivers, who is back on defense after switching to slot receiver in 2005. Rivers has the ability to play both cornerback positions, and has always been a steady yet aggressive presence on the field. His versatility will no doubt earn him plenty of snaps this year to spell both Williams and Lewis.

A pair of rookies will also see some playing time in Gibson's secondary. Redshirt freshman Kent Richardson and true freshman Boogie Allen are West Virginia's fourth and fifth cornerbacks.

"Boogie and Kent Richardson will split time," Gibson said. "The good thing about Kent is that he can play either. As a redshirt freshman he hasn't played any either. He's still learning though. Where we have to get him experience, just like we did with Antonio, Larry, and Vaughn, is in our nickel and dime packages even if it's just for a few snaps here and there to get their feet wet and see what they can do."

The development of Allen and Richardson is particularly crucial given the recent news with regards to another pair of freshmen corners, Guesly Dervil and Robert Williams. The latter two players haven't practiced for the past two weeks due to NCAA Clearinghouse issues. Williams was likely to redshirt in 2006 anyways, but Dervil would have seen the field both on defense and special teams. If and when they return to practice, it is almost certainly too late for either of them to have an impact after missing so much time.

Compounding the depth issues at corner is the fact that highly regarded freshman Greg "Hollywood" Davis showed up to camp out of shape, and likely cost himself a chance to play this year.

The wild-card in the revamped WVU secondary is redshirt freshman free safety Quinton Andrews. As a true freshman in 2005, Andrews dressed and traveled with the varsity in case of an emergency. He was able to get through the season without having to burn his redshirt, but it didn't take him much time to leave his mark during spring drills. He entered camp in a battle with senior Abraham Jones for the starting job at free safety, but it looks like for all intents and purposes that Andrews will be the starter at that spot on Saturday afternoon.

"With Quinton it's going to be a little bit different because the first snap he's going to take will be in a sold out stadium, and the lights are going to be on. You've got to start somewhere though," Gibson said.

If that scenario sounds familiar (freshman safety making his first start in a big game) it's because there's certainly a precedent for such an occurence. "Jahmile's first snap was on the road against the number one team in the country in the Orange Bowl," recalled Gibson of Addae's first start as a freshman during the 2001 season. "I think he's very confident in his abilities and what he can do.

"From what we've seen in practice over the last few weeks, he's a physical kid that will stick his face in there."

With the lack of veterans in the Mountaineer secondary, it wouldn't be a shock to see several deep balls thrown early at the secondary. Even without top receiver Hiram Moore (who showed a mind-boggling lack of judgement in being arrested the week before his team's biggest game of the year), the Thundering Herd will still be a threat to throw the football.

"We're going to get challenged early and often, and we've got to be able to hold it together back there," says Gibson.

Most are pointing at the secondary as a weakness, possibly the only weakness on the this year's team. Gibson, though, seems confident in his youngsters. One way or another come Saturday afternoon, we're goping to find out just how good the secondary is. If Gibson's inclination is indeed correct, that will happen sooner rather than later.

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