Mike Casazza: No denying attrition was a problem for WVU
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The explanation nobody wants to hear about West Virginia's defense in 2013 is that missing persons played a massive role in how badly the Mountaineers played late in the season.
A lot of people, whether they are fans or foes, coaches or critics, will call it an excuse because attrition is as much a part of football as third downs. But it's impossible to say WVU's performance was not affected by who it didn't have - injured or otherwise.
"I think the biggest problem we had was where we had Terence Garvin last year," defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said of Garvin, a senior in 2012 who starred outside at the spur position.
"He played just about every single snap for us there and if we had to, we could spell him with Wes Tonkery. Since the Oklahoma game, I don't think we had the same guy play that nickel/spur spot all year long, so you can't develop. And that's such a critical position."
The Oklahoma game, if you've forgotten, was the second game of the season. WVU used four players there during the game - Isaiah Brue, Tonkery, K.J. Dillon and Marvin Gross - and had a lot of turnover there in the final 10 games. And it is a critical position, a combination of a linebacker and a defensive back who can match up against Big 12 offenses to stop the run and cover receivers.
Bruce was one of the team's most productive defensive players in 2012, but as a middle linebacker. He moved to spur in the summer and didn't perform nearly as well as he did inside, though WVU didn't really use him like it used Garvin, which meant WVU didn't really replace Garvin's position, never mind performance.
Tonkery and Dillon are natural defensive backs who are better suited for the dual responsibilities of the position the way WVU uses it than was Bruce, but were eventually lost to season-ending injuries. Gross has the look of a pass-rushing linebacker, more of a buck than a spur, and was innocently overwhelmed at times as a true freshman who WVU would have rather redshirted.
The Mountaineers were made to scramble at spur for most of the season and compromise their defense and game plans by putting new and unusual pieces into the position. WVU just didn't have the type of player it needed as the season went along.
Actually, they might have, but they couldn't afford to make the move during season that they might make in the spring. Patterson will look at free safety Karl Joseph, whom Patterson believes is a better fit at spur as a player who can blitz, stop the run and cover routes.
That would mean two new safeties after enjoying stability with Joseph and Darwin Cook, a senior in 2013, the past two seasons. To make those changes, Patterson is willing to shake up the cornerback position, which was a mess in 2012, better last season and loses nobody to graduation.
Travis Bell, Ishmael Banks and Daryl Worley started for the Mountaineers this season. Patterson believes each can be a safety, though he likes Banks at cornerback and liked the way he played in 2013.
Worley was a high school safety who was moved to cornerback as a freshman this past season and grabbed a starting spot in the middle of the season. He was the starting free safety in the final game of the season and might not be moving anytime soon.
"I think his natural position is free safety, I really do," Patterson said. "He does some good things at corner, but he has the skills to play free. But it depends on recruiting and who we get. That's when we can look at all the pieces and find out where they go."
WVU is targeting cornerbacks in recruiting, and natural cornerbacks who can press and play man-to-man better than the current batch. There are takers already in Dravon Henry of Aliquippa (Pa.) High, Jaylon Myers of Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College and Keishawn Richardson of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Community College, who signed Wednesday.
If WVU finds players there, or from within, Patterson can consider moving Bell and Worley to safety to give the Mountaineers depth there with Dillon, Jarrod Harper, Malik Greaves, Jeremy Tyler. Joseph can then solve the spur.
It's bold, but doable. The early returns suggest WVU recruited very well last year. Gross, Worley and nose guard Darrien Howard were forced to play as true freshmen, but they filled roles and showed signs. Defensive end Dontrill Hyman and linebacker Brandon Golson were hits as junior college transfers. Golson started every game at buck linebacker, learned how to get in the backfield and ranked No. 2 nationally in forced fumbles while Hyman provided pressure and depth before an ankle injury stalled him late in the season.
"We've still got to get people who can impact the quarterback," Patterson said. "That's going to be a huge emphasis to help us up front and in the back, but if we can bring in people who can do what Dontrill did before he got hurt in the Texas game and who can do what Brandon Golson did for us, if we can get that or better at certain positions, they I think we can improve drastically."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.