MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — By most indications, whether spoken by participants or on display in two open practices, it seems like West Virginia’s defense hopes to play plenty of man-to-man coverage this season.
Not exclusively, but not rarely. A year ago, the Mountaineers did both, and played more zone than man-to-man. They’ll split it up in the fall as well, but probably not as severely.
“You need to do both,” defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Tony Gibson said. “It’s all about the mix and about changing it up on them. You’ve got to move the dots on defense.”
Yet while the Mountaineers will be both man and zone moving forward on defense, they won’t be something they were last season.
“We were scared early to play man for two reasons,” said Gibson, who was the safeties coach. “No. 1, we didn’t think we had enough talent. No. 2, we were worried about their confidence and the mental makeup of the defensive backs, especially coming off the year before.”
Those are two good reasons to shy away from a style the demands skill and self-certainty. The Mountaineers were short on both. The 2012 defense was the worst WVU has ever had, but at least featured veteran cornerbacks Pat Miller and Brodrick Jenkins. Then again, neither could hold down a spot and they made way for then-freshmen Terrell Chestnut, Ricky Rumph and Nana Kyeremeh and then-sophomore Ishmael Banks.
Last year, WVU leaned on Banks and Travis Bell and eventually made room for freshman Darryl Worley. Kyeremeh lost the season to injury and Chestnut was hurt for parts. Jenkins left the team during the season. Rumph played safety.
“We finally started to let those guys play and they started making plays and we had some success,” Gibson said. “Going all the way up to the Baylor game, we were rolling pretty good, all things considered. We were pretty good on third down and holding people down points-wise. We weren’t giving up a lot of passing yards. Then in one game, we lost all our confidence again. And then we started losing bodies.
“Now what do you do? You get scared and go back to thinking, ‘OK, we’ve got to protect them because that’s all we have left.’”
Bell is suspended indefinitely after an offseason arrest, and coach Dana Holgorsen hasn’t committed to reinstating Bell. Worley and Banks are the unquestioned first-team cornerbacks while Kyeremeh and Chestnut are back, though Chestnut has missed time with an injury. Sophomore Brandon Napoleon has developed to be a part of the team’s plans and junior college transfer Keishawn Richardson will benefit from being on campus for the spring.
WVU lost safety Darwin Cook and linebacker Doug Rigg to graduation, but feels quite confident about the depth at safety and linebacker.
Rumph was the first-teamer at free safety in Saturday’s public practice ahead of sophomore Jeremy Tyler. Sophomore Jarrod Harper is backing up junior Karl Joseph at bandit safety. Junior K.J. Dillon is poised for a big role at the spur position, a spot for a hybrid linebacker and defensive back, with sophomore Marvin Gross and redshirt freshman Malik Greaves behind him.
Juniors Nick Kwiatkoski, Brandon Golson and Isaiah Bruce played together at linebacker last season. Senior Jared Barber was third on the team in tackles last season, but is missing the spring because of offseason knee surgery.
Senior Jewone Snow peaked late last season when he was finally healthy while junior Shaq Petteway has played a lot for WVU, but missed last season with an injury. Redshirt freshman Al-Rasheed Benton, sophomore Sean Walters and junior college transfer Edward Muldrow are auditioning for playing time in the spring.
“We’re so much more equipped to hold up now,” Gibson said.
That’s buoyed Gibson’s confidence in his first spring as the coordinator. The Mountaineers are working on man-to-man and even schooling their cornerbacks on footwork that’s more conducive. They’ll still play zone defense when the situation calls for it or just to mix it up from series to series or down to down.
Playing man-to-man can not only shore up their coverage, but also assist them in another area that needs help.
WVU had just 16 sacks last season, the sixth-lowest total in the country, and 23 the year before that. The Mountaineers will have to not just survive, but thrive in man-to-man if they are to blitz more players more often and get more pressure on the passer.
“You have to be able to go play man, but here’s the one thing about it: Are you going to play man and rush four or five and get pressure or are you going to play man and have to bring seven?” Gibson said. “You pick your poison. What do you want to do? That’s where I think you have to have a good mix, but if you’re bringing extra guys, if you’re bringing seven and you’re in Cover Zero (with no safeties), you better be able to cover and you better be in position to tackle.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.