Starting From Scratch

The yearly task of educating a new crop of freshmen about the game of football has begun once again for WVU's veteran safeties coach.

Four newcomers in the defensive secondary endured their first day of two-a-day practices on Thursday. Their position coach said that despite his best efforts, the confusion that comes with trying to learn to play defense at the collegiate level is unavoidable in the early going.

"There's no stopping that," said West Virginia assistant coach Steve Dunlap. "That's just life in college football."

But for the four newcomers listed as "defensive backs" or safeties -- Darwin Cook, Terence Garvin, Pat Miller and Jonathan Scott -- the key is to not let the confusion take away from the natural athleticism and playmaking ability each possesses.

"I tell them always that even though it's confusing, you don't let it slow you down," Dunlap said. "If you're going to make a mistake, make it fast."

Indeed, it's essentially a given that each of the newcomers will struggle early.

The learning curve is made only more steep by the unique odd-stack defense employed by Mountaineer defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel that most recruits have never played in before stepping on campus.

While the coaches hardly take it easy on the freshmen, Dunlap said he tries to make his charges understand that mistakes are going to happen, but the key is to learn from them and to not make the same one twice.

"You try to make them relax and don't make them paranoid about making a mistake, because they're going to make them," he said. "I just tell the older guys to tell (the freshmen) what happened to them (in their first camp) so they know that it's just a part of the learning process."

Dunlap and the defensive coaching staff are fortunate in that (barring injuries) they will not have to depend on any of the newcomers to step onto the field this season.

Indeed, the experience of the returning defensive backs not only allows for some comfort among Casteel and his fellow coaches, but it also gives the newcomers a few mentors to learn from (even if many of the starters only have one year of experience themselves).

"Right now, we're in better shape at safety than we were last year, so hopefully those guys won't have to play," Dunlap said.

"(The veterans) help a lot. We're trying to groom (the freshmen) and get them ready as best we can. We'll try to make a decision when camp breaks on whether we're going to try to keep them with us (on the traveling roster) or redshirt them."

As far as those defensive backs who are likely to see the field this season, Dunlap is hoping that a year's worth of experience means they are more comfortable on the field and are capable of doing more things to help the defense.

"Hopefully we'll go a little bit faster and do a little bit more, get a bit more exotic on third downs," he said. "We'll see. We still have to be fundamentally sound, and at the beginning of camp, that's what you talk about -- the fundamentals. If you're a fundamentally sound player, everything else will take care of itself."

The key to that third down package is a special collection of players known as the Mountaineers' SWAT team. While they won't be policing any riots, the SWAT members do hope to resemble their namesake in using speed and stealth to attack their opposition.

"We'll put different players in different positions, get some faster players on the field and find out what they can do at different positions," Dunlap said. "It's just an evaluation process right now."

That evaluation began a bit earlier than usual this year, as the third-down team made its way on the field by the third day of camp when it typically wouldn't make its debut until the sixth or seventh day.

"We want to be better on third downs," the safeties coach said matter-of-factly.

And while the WVU offense had its entire playbook installed in five days, the defense only has the essential elements in place as to allow for a gradual progression through the fundamentals before getting into advanced concepts.

"We get the basis of it in five days, but it's not near all of it," Dunlap said. "Defense is kind of a reaction thing, too. I'm not saying it's easier to play offense or anything, but offense has rules with blocking schemes and whatnot, while a defensive player has to react to what they see."

"The more unusual places you put him in, the harder it will be for him. So we want to get them comfortable and get them to be fundamentally sound. We'll build one block on top of another until we get where we want to go."

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