Secondary Matters

While numerous scheme tweaks and position changes (many of which were experiments) were visible during West Virginia's spring practice, the moves and tests on one area of the defense were particularly intriguing.

That area, the secondary, was roundly criticized for its performance last year, and while much of that noise was undeserved, there is no doubt that the Mountaineer coaching staff is leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to make improvements at the three safety positions as well as a cornerback.

Starting from the back end, free safety Quinton Andrews, the returning starter from a year ago, saw his hold on the position challenged by a number of potential suitors. Andrews has all the skills necessary to play the position, and features the big hitting ability necessary to separate receivers from the ball, but at times was tentative during his initial season. Rather than trusting his read and making an aggressive play, the Florida native sometimes hung back or hesitated for a split second, which is often all that is needed to make the difference between an incompletion and a reception.

Boogie Allen, who was moved back to that spot from cornerback, showed promise with his quick reactions and decision making, and demonstrated that in the Gold-Blue game with a near interception following an excellent break on the ball. If he stays at that position, which seems likely, he could make a push for playing time, but he will have to ramp up his understanding of the position quickly during the fall.

Another intriguing face at the position was Eric Wicks, who saw some snaps there in addition to his work at both the spur and bandit spots. While it would be something of a surprise to see Wicks at free safety once the season starts, his familiarity with the position gives West Virginia much more flexibility on defense. Should three or four players emerge as quality performers at the spur or bandit spots, Wicks could slide back on occasion to give WVU more experience on the field. And if Allen continues his improvement, Wicks would be expected to move back closer to the line of scrimmage.

Andrews, who did nothing to help himself by committing a minor off-the-field infraction that kept him out of the spring game, shouldn't be counted out yet, of course. With just one year of experience under his belt, he certainly has plenty of time to improve and maintain his starting spot. Players such as Andrews, who are hyped early in their careers, often are viewed in a different light as they struggle to meet the sometimes unfair expectations placed upon them. It should be remembered that he has three-fourths of his career yet to go, and is definitely capable of becoming a solid performer in the backfield.

The same sort of thought process should be applied to senior cornerbacks Larry Williams and Antonio Lewis, both of whom where often identified as culprits in the secondary's shaky play. Just like Rob Summers and Frank Young on the basketball team, it sometimes takes player several seasons before they become fully comfortable in both the defensive schemes and in their abilities. The hope is that Williams and Lewis will put everything together this year to become solid players at corner. Williams, who has all the tools, needs only to learn how to put the last play behind him and focus on the next one to become the player his talent says he can be, while Lewis, who certainly doesn't lack confidence, is expected to be able to do more in this year's version of the defense.

Another player in that boat is Kent Richardson, who seemed stuck in neutral during last season. A highly regarded corner from Tallahassee, Fla., Richardson battled to become more consistent during 2006, and was never able to reach the level that would earn him consistent playing time. However, head coach Rich Rodriguez mentioned at the conclusion of the spring that Richardson had made a good bit of progress during the 15 practice sessions, so if he continues on that path he could be ready to challenge for playing time in the defensive backfield as well.

Junior college cornerback Ellis Lankster, anointed by some as an immediate starter, went through many of the adjustment problems that jucos encounter, including the dizzying assignment of assimilating an entirely new defense within a few spring practices. This summer, with its independent work on passing and pass defense drills, will be critical as Lankster tries to absorb it all and make it second nature. Only then can he truly compete for an every-down position at corner.

Guesly Dervil, another returning youngster with playing experience from a year ago, could also make a mark at corner, but like most youngsters, needs to become more consistent in his execution. Like Andrews, it must be remembered that Dervil, along with Allen, are still very young, and that they are just now getting their first real chances to become consistent, contributing members of the defense.

Looking over this group of players, it's obvious that there is enough talent to fill out the three back end positions in the defense and have a quality group of backups as well. And with different players getting some time at different positions, it should be easier to make moves during the season when injuries or subpar play dictate. That doesn't mean, however, that the rotation is set. There could be any number of lineups or rotations of players available for duty when Western Michigan visits to open the season on Sept. 1, and a lot of work remaining to be done to identify them.

Of course, Eric Wicks will be on the field somewhere. Williams and Lewis, whether starters or backups, should get appreciable playing time, as should Andrews provided no more transgressions come forth from his direction. Past that, however, the outlook is unclear. If it's true that competition is the best path to improvement, then the players who emerge from this crowded field should be able to better the performance of last year's unit.

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