MORGANTOWN - Brian Mitchell has coached college secondaries long enough - 18 years at BYU, Texas Tech and East Carolina - and played the position well enough - at BYU and for three years in the NFL - to know talent when he sees it.That comes with a flip side, of course, too. After all those years, he's probably astute enough to recognize when the required level of excellence - or even the potential - doesn't exist.It would easy to assume that by now, two months into his job as West Virginia's new cornerbacks coach, Mitchell has discovered gaping holes in the talent level of his new charges. After all, he's inheriting a group that was arguable the worst in the nation last season at defending the pass.Perhaps it's cockeyed optimism or simply a need to be positive, but as he goes through the early stages of this massive rebuilding job during West Virginia's spring practices, Mitchell swears he's encouraged.
Whatever the Mountaineers' problems were last season, a lack of talent apparently wasn't the chief issue."I've been amazed, really,'' Mitchell said. "I don't know what the situation was last year because I was looking from afar. But when I got here and I looked at the depth chart and I watched the kids on film, I was like, 'Boy, we've got good talent here.' And with what we're adding, we've got excellent talent."We have enough. We have more than enough.''
Well, the Mountaineers certainly have enough bodies. Although not all of them will be able to fully participate in spring practice, Mitchell does have a sizeable group with which to work. And many of them have experience, too.In Brodrick Jenkins, Ricky Rumph, Nana Kyeremeh, Ishmael Banks and Terrell Chestnut, the Mountaineers have five corners who saw either extensive or under-pressure playing time last season. Of the six other cornerbacks listed on the spring roster, Avery Williams and Brandon Napoleon have at least competed well in practice. And although the recruiting class that will arrive this summer doesn't include a player listed as a cornerback, there could be one or two at other positions who will be tried there.Put them all together and Mitchell insists there is enough talent."The first thing you look at is, 'Do I have enough ability out there to affect the game?'" Mitchell said. "And looking at these players that we have coming back and the ones that will be coming in the fall that we may move around here and there, I think we have more than enough talent."
That having been said, that talent certainly didn't get the job done a year ago. The Mountaineers were No. 118 out of 120 FBS teams in pass defense and even worse, No. 119, in pass efficiency defense.And so Mitchell points out the obvious, which is that no amount of talent is safe from failure if it isn't properly utilized."I think talent's overrated,'' Mitchell said. "I think if you send a group of kids out there that can mesh and work as one, 11-man football [team], have great football IQ, can play with phenomenal effort, you can play good defense."I didn't say great defense. I said good defense. That's the bare minimum.''
Whether Mitchell can reverse the fortunes of the secondary remains to be seen, of course. But it's not as if he's alone on an island of responsibility. The entire West Virginia defense was a failure last season, which is why he's not the only new piece in the coaching puzzle. Tony Gibson is back, now coaching safeties, and Keith Patterson has replaced Joe DeForest as the coordinator.And every area has to improve."It's a collection. You can't have one without the other,'' Mitchell said. "You can't have great pass defense without a great pass rush. We all know that. But on the back end of that, you need great pass coverage to have [tackles for loss] and sacks for the guys up front.''So now, as the Mountaineers begin their second week of spring practice, Mitchell is essentially starting from scratch."These kids are a blank canvas to me,'' Mitchell said. "Some of the things I'm going to do are probably different than what they were exposed to last year or the year before. But we're going to start at ground zero. We're going to teach them how to get into a stance, how to recognize formations, how to play situations. We're going to give them all the tools they need in that toolbox to make a play on Saturday.''Mitchell has been through similar situations before. His last year at Texas Tech, in 2009, he was in a position of rebuilding and got that project off on the right foot. He didn't stay to see it through - he moved on and spent the last three years as the defensive coordinator at East Carolina - but what he started was a success.
"I had a similar situation at Texas Tech four years ago,'' Mitchell said. "We had a bunch of young guys - just a couple of veterans and then all freshmen and sophomores. And we were able to start at ground zero and develop one of the best secondaries in that conference for four years.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.