Comfort Zone

Junior defensive back Ridwan Malik made his long-awaited 2006 start for West Virginia against Mississippi State on Saturday, but the watershed event didn't put him outside of his comfort zone.

"I was cool," Malik said, maintaining a straight face for a couple of seconds before letting out a big laugh that indicated at least a few butterflies must have been present in his stomach. "Really, I wasn't bouncing off the walls or anything like that. I felt pretty calm, and I felt like I was ready to play."

Malik's on-field experience certainly contributed to his state of mind when he ran out with the defensive starters onto the turf of Davis-Wade Stadium. Although this was his first starting assignment of the year, he is a veteran on Jeff Casteel's unit, having played two prior years in the 3-3-5 stack scheme while accumulating 43 tackles.

That resume certainly helped Malik, who has been out of action for much of this year, stay calm as the game began.

"It makes a difference (that I have played a lot before)," Malik reasoned. "I've been waiting for this opportunity for a really long time. I've been practicing and making plays in practice to try to earn the opportunity to make those plays in front of the crowd. I'm going to keep working hard to help the team get better. Hopefully, I can make the hometown fans proud of me."

Malik will certainly have the opportunity to do just that, as he figures to hold on to his starting spot against Syracuse. He had six tackles and a pass deflection against the Bulldogs and head coach Rich Rodriguez was generally pleased with the South Carolina native's play.

"He wasn't a superstar by any stretch, but he played well," Rodriguez said after reviewing game tape. "He made several plays and had some nice tackles. He's a solid player for us, and we can depend on him to be in the right position."

For his part, Malik was a bit tougher on himself. Despite his assertion that he wasn't affected by the emotions of his start, he wasn't pleased with his first half of action.

"The first half I started out pretty slow," he said with a frown, which mirrored his assessment of the opening 30 minutes. "I'm not happy with my play in the first half at all. My second half performance -- I stepped it up a lot. I made a lot more plays and a lot more tackles in the second half. But I'm not satisfied. This is my first contact since camp, and I only had one full contact scrimmage. I know I can get better, and I will keep working to get better. I will try to make it happen."

The lack of practice time may have contributed to Malik's slow start. While he has been practicing for a couple of weeks, it's not quite the same as playing in a game.

"However you practice, that's pretty much how you are going to play," Malik noted. "But game Saturdays, you know you have to step it up, and you might play with a little more urgency. I had to get my sea legs under me in the first half and get used to being out there again. It took me a little while to do it."

Malik, who potentially could play either spur or bandit, played the latter against the Bulldogs. That moved flip-flopping Eric Wicks back to spur, where he had an excellent game, including two sacks. Wicks has appeared a bit confused while switching back and forth between the positions this year, and hopefully Malik's play will allow him to drop anchor at spur for the rest of the season.

Malik's return also gives West Virginia more time to develop backups Charles Pugh (bandit) and Johnny Holmes (spur). That pair, while making some plays, has also struggled at times with assignments, which led to some successful plays for the opposition. With Malik providing solid play opposite wicks, the younger pair can hopefully be brought along more slowly, so as not to overload them before they are ready.

One other area where Malik's veteran calm helped WVU was at halftime. Having just given up a rather stunning touchdown to the Bulldogs, the Mountaineers entered the locker room with just a 14-7 lead despite having dominated play for much of the opening 30 minutes. Malik, along with some of the other "young-old" players on that side of the ball, weren't fazed.

"One thing about our team, it is always cool," Malik noted. "We have pretty much seen everything. Our defense is young, but we have traveled a lot. We have been through a lot of journeys. We are still trying to mold things and get that unity on defense to shut people down, but we are always calm. We don't get flustered."

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