Mountaineer defense needs to learn from its mistakes
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - If nothing else, the 2012 football season served as an education for West Virginia's defensive players, especially those charged with playing the back end of that defense.
They learned what it was like to see players run past them, again and again.
It can, of course, be argued that that's not exactly the best kind of experience anyone can endure, but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?
Take Ishmael Banks, for instance. He had a front-row seat for much of the carnage that was West Virginia's pass defense last season, playing both cornerback and safety. While it's not something he ever wants to repeat, it was at least instructive.
"I got a lot of experience, and experience plays a big role in football,'' Banks said. "As long as you learn from your mistakes, it'll help you.''
As West Virginia resumes spring practice this week after a lull for spring break, some of the most important work is being done on the defensive side of things. There are new coaches and new ideas, but at least for the spring there aren't many new players.
So the task these days is to come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things with the same players. Steve Patterson is in his first season as the full-time defensive coordinator, while cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell and safeties coach Tony Gibson are new to the staff.
"I think they're trying to keep it as simple as possible so we can just go out and play ball,'' Banks said. "We're still doing some of the same things, but the concept is a little different. They want us to be able to attack the ball different ways and show different looks, but still keep it simple.''
Simplifying things for Banks would be a welcome relief. It's not that he can't handle the complicated, but last season he was asked to do more than most. He played both cornerback and safety, the latter forced by injuries that depleted the safeties.
"I don't think I'm a safety,'' Banks said.
As the season wore on and things got progressively worse in the secondary, Banks was moved back to cornerback and started four straight games there in the second half of the season. He might have finished the season as a starter, but he hurt his leg early in the game at Iowa State and didn't play again, missing both the regular-season finale against Kansas and the Pinstripe Bowl.
Now he's basically starting over, as are all of West Virginia's defensive backs. As Mitchell attempts to find out whom his best players are, he has a fairly large group from which to choose. Banks, Brodrick Jenkins, Nana Kyeremeh and Terrell Chestnut all started games last season. Ricky Rumph played more as the season went along, Avery Williams is rounding into shape after missing last season injured, and younger players like Brandon Napoleon and Vernon Davis are coming off redshirt years.
Mitchell calls the collection a blank canvas as far as he's concerned. He's coaching them for the first time with no preconceived notions of what they can and cannot do. Last year doesn't matter.
For guys like Banks, though, they can't erase last year, and at least for now they don't want to. It's still a great teaching lesson.
"All of those things contribute,'' Banks said, ticking off some of the low points of the season. "Every mistake you make, you learn from it.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.