Secondary Matters - II

Last week, we started a look at the potential changes and outlook for the West Virginia football team's defensive secondary by examining the cornerbacks and free safety positions. We conclude that analysis today with a look at the spur and bandit positions.

These two spots, which have overlapping run and pass support duties and are a bit different from the classic strong safety positions, are keys to West Virginia's defense. They demand a wide range of skills, but if players can be found who can support against the run but also provide solid pass coverage help, the Mountaineer defense can become very difficult to attack. If both players are capable of dropping deep into the secondary, cover underneath routes and take on blockers, WVU can change its defensive looks a great deal without substitution – which makes it much more difficult for the offense to create mismatches.

Returning starter Eric Wicks has played both spur and bandit during his career, and could fill either spot again in 2007. As noted in the previous article, Wicks also got a look at free safety during the spring, and acquitted himself well there. With that versatility, opposing offenses won't be able to zero in on Wicks and devise plays that either focus on him or try to avoid his side of the field.

If Wicks does get appreciable time at free, that opens up both the spur and bandit spots for more playing time. Charles Pugh, who seemed to finally harness his considerable talent in WVU's Gator Bowl win, would appear to have a hold at bandit, while Ridwan Malik, who has also seen time on both sides, is in the picture for a good deal of time as well. Pugh, who has battled to control his emotions at times, has all the tools to be an impact playmaker at this position, while Malik, who has been a solid veteran performer, could be good enough to allow Wicks to roam to free safety.

Behind that pair, however, are a number of question marks, if only in terms of experience. Highly-regarded Greg Davis made the move down from cornerback, and his hitting ability and coverage skills make him an excellent prospect. He made good progress in learning the spot this spring, but the complexities involved (spur and bandit could be the most difficult to learn and master, as they require the widest range of skills) will make the fall a critical period for the Woodlawn, Md. native.

Walk-on Justin Blankenship was singled out by more than one coach as having an excellent spring, and moved himself into contention for playing time as well. Just a redshirt freshman, Blankenship could be positioning himself to become the latest in a long line of Mountaineer walk-on success stories.

Also available for duty if necessary is John Holmes, who moved down to linebacker for much of the spring. While the preference would be to keep him and his outstanding speed as an outside linebacker, he could move back a position to help if need be. Also of intrigue is true freshman Sidney Glover, who impressed many observers with his size and speed. The Ohio native enrolled in January after graduating early from high school, and took advantage of his first spring practice. It's probably too much to expect a great deal from him during his freshman season, but he is certainly a name to watch in succeeding seasons. A redshirt is still up in the air for Glover, depending on the progress he and others at the position make during fall camp and the first few weeks of the season.

Moves to other positions have cut the numbers at spur and bandit, as Carmen Connolly (wide receiver) and Trippe Hale (free safety) among others, have jumped to different spots. Those moves, plus the lack of proven depth, would seem to rule against a full time move of Wicks to free safety. However, this year, more than ever, the phrase "getting the best 11 on the field) has been heard from the Mountaineers coaching staff, so that switch certainly can't be counted out.

Wicks, and his ability to move around without getting lost in coverages and assignments, would seem to be the key to defensive flexibility and success. The Pittsburgh, Pa., native is a leader both on and off the field, and if he can jump around when required to get the best mix of defensive teammates into play, WVU's defense could see a commensurate jump in improvement as well.

One item to keep in mind, however, is that the Mountaineer coaching staff doesn't want to weaken its run defense for the sake of improvement in the back end. West Virginia's ability to stop or slow the run has been the linchpin of its defense the past few seasons, and doing so will remain the #1 priority in 2007. While improvement in pass defense is certainly desired, it won't be at the expense of giving up more yards on the ground. Any position changes or scheme alterations will have to pass that test before it goes any further.

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