Standing Tall

Bruce Tall is finally has some options. And he is exploring all of them – including one he might not enjoy.

The fourth-year assistant has seen great ability and depth within his hybrid safety spots, and a 2006 pool so shallow that the Mountaineers were making linebackers safeties and trying to fit corners into the spots. Through that, however, there has been one constant in Eric Wicks.

And now, the senior's ability to play the spur and bandit areas along with additional depth provided by players like Ridwan Malik and Greg Davis – who were hurt and out of shape, respectively, last year – has allowed the coaching staff the make moves that will benefit other areas. The major ones during spring were John Holmes' sliding inside to linebacker, cornerback Greg Davis' move to safety and the work of Chuck Pugh at the free slot, which adds to the depth behind starter Quinton Andrews. That's something that never could have happened in the past, when Tall was hamstrung by a lack of numbers. Now the problem is going the opposite way, Tall having enough talent and depth that other coaches, including Rich Rodriguez, are taking notice. The head coach threatened to allow Wicks to play wide receiver during fall camp if he could not get the desired productivity from the group, which has been as beaten up as any on the team this season while trying to develop consistency and continuity under first-year assistant Tony Dews.

"You have to know the plays, you have to be able to block, to recognize coverages and understand what we are trying to do on certain plays," Rodriguez said. "I was half joking (when the statement of Wicks' two-way play was made). He could probably do it, but we want to make sure he can do what he needs to on defense first. He is a guy that can play up close to the line and away from the ball. He has great balls skills and is probably our best player in terms of going up and attacking the ball. We can use that all over."

And though that might make Dews happy, for Tall it would certainly cause other feelings.

"If that becomes something they are really looking to do, I will probably not let (Wicks) take jug work any more and I will tell him to start dropping passes," Tall joked of the defensive players catching passes fed through what resembles a pitching machine for footballs. "Any way we can use him, we'll do whatever works. He has an incredible knack for catching the ball. He has soft hands, and he could easily be a receiver. But that's part of the reason we like him on defense, because you want some of your best athletes playing on defense."

"That's why we can move people around, because we can do a lot with the other guys. We can move guys because others are ready to play. We have a lot of depth. We can roll guys and roll more. I was putting in three sets and I felt comfortable with any of them in there. The whole key is to make sure you spread (the reps) out enough. You have to work guys that don't always get that many, but you have to work the key guys, too. You are as good as your second guy is, so you get that second guy, the third guy, as many reps as you can and sprinkle them through, keep bringing them along. When it is the time of the others, they will make it happen."

The better depth at the hybrid spots should better the whole defense. Holmes move outside ups the speed and allows Reed Williams to move to the middle behind starter Marc Magro, out for the spring following knee surgery, giving even more burst to what has been considered a slower unit in recent years. With the safety starters being Wicks and Chuck Pugh at bandit and spur, respectively, with Malik and Davis backing them, the former seems especially strong, with an All-Big East performer and a player who started five games last year as the backup. The spur has settled some, Pugh settling with it this spring as the junior develops into a more intelligent player in terms of limiting contact and has impressed this spring. Davis, to his credit, now appears in better shape after coming in highly recruited and highly out of shape last season. At 6-3 and 195 pounds, the frosh runs well and has the size to man the slot and cover any player, including large tight ends.

"They are working real hard at working on improving on what they need to improve on, and that's kind of everything overall at this point," said Tall, an Ohio Wesleyan graduate who came to WVU after stints at Western Michigan and Harvard. "We take a lot of pride in being the best backend/secondary/safeties that we can possibly be. We identified some of them, and are now working on them. I think we finally have some experience. We have developed that. We replaced the entire back end last year other than Eric (Wicks) and so now you have guys that have played and have game experience and not just practice experience. They understand the pace of the game and the competition that we are in, so hopefully that will be the key to turning it around."

The entire secondary has been under major pressure from the entire coaching staff this spring in an effort to better what finished as among the poorest pressure pass defenses in the nation. WVU buckled in some big games, not only to superior passing foes like Louisville, but against Rutgers, more of a run-based squad, as well. It should be noted that did come after losing nearly its entire secondary, and this year the Mountaineers return largely intact and bolstered by players now ready to make more of an impact, like Guesley Dervil and Boogie Allen. If the corners can play effectively enough – whoever emerges as the starters at the field and boundary slots should be solid, at the least, if for no other reasons than the sheer numbers piling up to attempt to see time – the safeties should be able to follow.

"When you break down your basic drills, you are still doing the same concepts, moving drills, contact drills, tackling drills. Those are all key," Tall said of readying his new crew. "You just put your guys in position to make plays with fundamentals and the things they do in practice. You will adjust some, but they are really in the same categories. The whole goal is progress, making it daily, practice-by-practice. I think we have done that, and the experience we have back can only help us."


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