West Virginia sits at the midway point of the 2007 season No. 11 in the nation in pass defense after finishing last season at No. 109. For a group that returns almost all of the names and faces from a year ago, there have been two keys to the newfound success, according to defensive backs coach/recruiting coordinator Tony Gibson.
And the biggest of those keys?
"Consistency. Guys are playing with confidence," said Gibson, now in his seventh season coaching the Mountaineer defensive backs. "We have some guys back with some game experience and have some games under their belt. I feel that they're progressing well and making a lot of plays."
Indeed they are. The senior-laden secondary is giving up an average of just 164.7 passing yards per game, or nearly 80 yards less per game than they averaged one year ago. Western Michigan and Marshall, in the season's first two games, were the only two schools to throw for more than 200 yards against a Mountaineer defense that has looked flat out dominating in its past four games.
The second key, says Gibson, has been the depth of a unit that is playing as many as 10 or 11 different corners and safeties in any given game.
"Right now, we're playing six different corners," said the former Glenville State Pioneer. "No corner has gotten more than 40 snaps in a game. In the last two games, I think the high-rep guy was Larry Williams at 28 in one game and 23 in another. Anytime you can do that and still play six guys, it helps a lot."
Without a doubt the emergence of junior college transfer Ellis Lankster following a four-game suspension, and the heightened play of sophomore Kent Richardson has boosted a group that already included experienced seniors such as Williams, Vaughn Rivers, and Antonio Lewis. The latter three certainly were targeted with a lion's share of the blame following last season, but to their credit have handled this year's early success with nothing but class.
During summer interviews, several Mountaineers brought up the number 109, but also added that they used last season's criticism as motivation during preparations for 2007. So far, it looks as though that motivation and preparation has paid huge dividends for the Blue and Gold.
"Those kids aren't any different than they were a year ago just because they're seniors," Gibson noted. "They're prideful guys, you know? And they work hard. I think they come ready to play everyday just like they did last year. Now, they're just more consistent and a year older. I think all of that ties in."
Add in veteran bandit safety Eric Wicks, senior free safety transfer Ryan Mundy, and solid spur play from senior Ridwan Malik and sophomore Quinton Andrews, and one wonders just how good this West Virginia secondary can be.
"I know back in '96 when you're talking about (Aaron) Beasley and (Mike) Logan, I don't know if we have that caliber of player back there," Gibson said, referring to West Virginia's 1996 defense that is viewed by many as the best in school history, and finished that season among the nation's finest. "What we do have is experience. Anytime you can have experience…in our seven years here that we've had that type of experience coming back, usually we'll end up with pretty good numbers and win some games. If you can shut down a team, and not shut them down but limit big plays, and know when they're going to throw because our run defense has been so good, that's what's making us better right now."
Right now is undoubtedly the operative phrase. With just half of the season complete, there is still plenty of football to be played. With teams such as Louisville and Rutgers still on the docket, one could easily argue that Gibson's secondary still has yet to face its toughest foe. However there is no disputing the fact that, after taking a lot of heat in the offseason for their play a year ago, Gibson and his players deserve a pat on the back for their success so far this season.