Back and Forth

West Virginia's Eric Wicks has bounced between spur and bandit for much of the Mountaineers' season – a testament to his athletic ability as the WVU coaching staff searches for the complement to him at one of the two featured spots in the 3-3-5 stack. Has the movement hurt Wicks' play on West Virginia's march to a 7-0 record?

It's certainly not as if Wicks has been playing poorly. The Pittsburgh, Penn., native is second on the team in tackles with 39, has 4 ½ stops behind the line of scrimmage, including three sacks, and has two pass interceptions, both of which stopped potential scoring drives. He has also broken up three other passes, so it's not as if the moving around has made him a poor player. The feeling persists, however, that Wicks might be doing more if he had been at one position all season, which was the intention during the past spring and summer.

During that period, the Mountaineer defensive staff envisioned Wicks at bandit as a replacement for since-departed Mike Lorello. The hope was that Wicks could raise havoc as a weakside blitzer and backfield disruptor just as Lorello did, and also provide better pass coverage when required to drop off into the secondary. Several things, however, combined to derail those plans.

First, a consistent replacement at spur could not be found. Johnny Holmes, the best of the bunch, and who certainly has the skill set to play the spot, struggled (as many newcomers to WVU's defense do) in picking up the nuances of the position. With several other candidates available to play the bandit, Wicks moved back to spur for the opening pair of games, with Charles Pugh opposite him. After those two contests, Holmes progressed enough to earn a start at spur, which moved Wicks back to bandit. Ridwan Malik then returned from injuries that had kept him from all but toke appearances to play the bandit against Mississippi State, with the flip-flop occurring again. Then it was back to Holmes for Syracuse and UConn, with some wrinkles in coverages that at times saw both players on the same side of the field, according to the Connecticut formations.

All that has to be confusing for a player, but Wicks professes not to be fazed or affected by playing with some many different teammates opposite him.

"It really doesn't bother me," he said following the Connecticut game. "They are all good athletes, and they all work hard. Whoever is in there, it doesn't really matter. They all bring different things to the defense, and they all contribute."

The leadership qualities in Wicks' words are apparent, as is his support of his teammates. Still, the sight of him barreling in for crushing blind side sacks against Mississippi State and Connecticut makes one think how much more effective he could be if he were settled at one spot.

That's not to blame the coaching staff, which has been searching for the best combination of 11 players to get on the field. Wicks, who is effective no matter where he plays, can thus be moved around as the need arises. And if playing a position at 95% effectiveness allows a player at another position to get on the field, and that move is best overall, it's going to be made.

Thus Wicks, who along with Kevin McLee and Keilen Dykes are leaders on the defense, might make more shuffles in the future. He and Holmes played their best game together against the Huskies, who used several different tactics in an attempt to get the Mountaineers out of sync.

"I think Connecticut was trying to get us off balance with their motioning and their shifting," Wicks explained. "I don't think it affected us much – I think we handled it pretty well. We could have had some better third down stops at times, but we did better than last week, so we showed some improvement."

Even more encouraging was the face that the Mountaineers shook off an early shaky performance to move into domination mode against the Huskies.

"They got us off rhythm a little bit," said Wicks' of UConn's early drive, which resulted in a field goal. "They got some run plays where we didn't tackle well. They got a few plays, and they started driving on us."

However, WVU's defense, as it has many times this year, stiffened in the red zone, and held UConn to a field goal. Wicks was key on that stop, breaking up and nearly intercepting Matt Bonislawski's pass into the end zone.

"I bobbled it and as I was coming down, it slid right out of there. I thought I had it, but when I hit the ground, it came out," said a rueful Wicks. "It was kind of disappointing, but we did pretty well on defense today, so it's not still in my head or anything."

The stats bear the defender out. WVU again negated the opposition's run game, yielding just 95 yards on 33 carries to the nation's ninth-ranked rushing team. The Huskies managed just 210 total yards (well below WVU's goal of 290 per game) and scored its only touchdown as the result of a turnover, which gave them the ball on WVU's 25-yard line. The Mountaineer defense produced four three and out series, and also had two others where they yielded just five plays.

With that performance, Wicks and his teammates now have even more to build on as they begin preparations for Louisville on Nov. 2. The mature defender knows how the Mountaineers got to this point, and plans to continue that course as West Virginia prepares for the first of several big conference encounters.

"It has to do with one game at a time. You start thinking about other games in the season and you'll sleep on a team, and they will knock you out," said Wicks, who knows that won't be the case in WVU's next game. "By coach keeping us on one team every week and just concentrating on that one team, it makes each week a playoff."

That approach has worked well so far, but now the toughest stretch of the season begins. After Louisville, games with Pitt, South Florida and Rutgers loom, any of which have the ability to knock WVU from the ranks of the unbeaten. Wicks, no matter where he is playing, will be one of the key players trying to prevent that from happening.

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