Solid safety play key to pass, run defense

West Virginia has finalized schemes, and is now polishing defensive sets for the Sept. 2 season-opener against Marshall – a balanced passing team that throws anytime, playing to the Mountaineers' perceived weakness.

One look at the WVU roster shows four new starters in a five-man defensive backfield, two of which come at the safety spots in bandit Charles Pugh and free safety Quinton Andrews. Pugh, a 6-0, 195-pounder, was inserted into a starting role after first-teamer Ridwan Malik's hip sprain, which led defensive backs coach Tony Gibson to shuffle the lineup.

Lone senior Eric Wicks – who started at spur last season – was going to slide to bandit, but, after Malik's injury, he moved back to spur, which demoted John Holmes to a reserve role there. It elevated Huntington native Aaron Meckstroth, who was recently placed on scholarship, to the second team bandit role. The shifts will play a major role in the opener, as Marshall promises to challenge the secondary quickly, and continue to do so.

"They are very balanced, and they'll throw it in the first quarter and the fourth quarter, ahead or behind," West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez said.

WVU can help Andrews, a freshman starter at free, and its young hybrid safeties with better pressure from its three-man front in the odd stack and superior linebacker play. Much of the pressure will actually come from the spur and bandit, two positions which make a three-man rush a four or five-man front in many situations, or drop into passing lanes like Wicks often does to disrupt throws. The upperclassman must be responsible for lining up his safeties, though that also falls to Andrews as the player farthest back on the defense.

"(Marshall quarterback Bernie Morris) can run and pass, so we will try contain and control," Wicks said. "We are going to stunt the line as much as possible so they don't know what we will do. We'll man-up on the center and as long as we keep pressure on the quarterback we will be ok. The line and linebackers will try to take care of most of it for us."

Besides Morris, Marshall has a very slippery back in Ahmad Bradshaw. Both coaches have stated that tackling the other's speed and athleticism will be a key to the tilt, which could be high-scoring if the secondaries prove susceptible to play action or unable to stop opposing receivers.

"We have to finish through plays and know responsibilities and make tackles," Meckstroth said. "That's a real key thing: no missed tackles. We have to know our keys and just play football. We have time to freshen little stuff that we need to fix, but overall I think we are very comfortable with our schemes and what we do. It's all Marshall now, and I think everybody is ready to play somebody other than ourselves. Everybody is excited."

Expected to be challenged immediately is Pugh, who is overflowing with potential but lacking experience. Corners Larry Williams and Antonio Lewis have seen extensive game action, but Pugh was primarily a special teams player last season.

"They know I am a young player in my first year starting," he said. "They will try me a lot. We think they might try running to my side, try a little shifting. We have to keep contain on the outside and not let the ball carriers come outside of us. There is no help out there. I watched film on their tight end for blocking, and I have seen Bradshaw. He is a very good back with good footwork and control. He can make you miss. If they pick on me, they will try to break it outside and block me out. I have to play fast."

Said Gibson of Pugh: "He is still learning, and the thing about what we do and how we coach is that we will throw a bunch of stuff at them early and see how they react and go from there. They are all fitting in, and it's time to play and see where we are."

Holmes will factor in as a part-time player who can run and cover. His long wingspan makes him an excellent candidate to slide from linebacker into the secondary, and Wicks describes him as a "big, physical athlete who is very fast. He was a linebacker last year, yet has the speed of a safety." Meckstroth is a heady defender who has been in West Virginia's system for five years, and even reserve bandit Akeem Jackson, as a senior, as a solid grasp of the schemes, but must become more consistent.

"We know they will come at us," Gibson said. "If I was a betting man, I'd lay my money on that. I am almost positive that is what it is going to be."

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