MORGANTOWN — Count cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell among the growing number of fans of what West Virginia’s defense is doing to get ready for the 2014 season.
“I’m always going to be married to what we do,” Mitchell said, “but this allows me to go back to what I believe in.”
Coaching cornerbacks at BYU and Texas Tech and running the secondary and the entire defense at East Carolina, Mitchell preferred to have his cornerbacks backpedal in coverage. The cornerbacks keep their hips parallel with the line of scrimmage and wheel in reverse to cover routes until it’s time to turn and run with a receiver.
Many other coaches prefer to have their cornerbacks shuffle in coverage, where a player opens his hips so one is perpendicular to the line of scrimmage and they slide their feet to keep up with receivers.
Proponents of either believe their way gives their cornerbacks an edge to read and react, which means what a coach picks is merely a personal preference.
“If you can give your kids a competitive advantage, why not do it?” Mitchell said. “Pedaling gives us a two-way go, where the shuffle limits you and what you can run schematically and what you can do as far as defending routes.”
Again, there is debate within the coaching community about which method limits and which expands potential, and sometimes the most important part of the conversation involves what players can be taught and what they can execute.
Mitchell wants to teach the pedal way and thinks these Mountaineers can handle it, which is a different story than the one told a year ago, when Mitchell first arrived on campus to replace Daron Roberts.
“They were neither,” he said.
Mitchell quickly learned what then-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson was doing.
After just a few days of their first spring together, they determined what was best for Patterson’s plan.
“We decided the shuffle would be better to take the hips out of the equation,” he said. “What we were running, we didn’t need the pedal.”
What Mitchell found, though, was that his shuffling cornerbacks were giving up too many things, and specifically yards to receivers on out breaks.
“We couldn’t really shuffle in man coverage because you can only really transition one way, and that’s on an inside vertical route or an inside break,” he said.
Patterson is gone, off to Arizona State and replaced by Tony Gibson. In his first season in charge of a Division I defense, Gibson wants to be more aggressive. That means playing more man-to-man coverage and simplifying things just enough so that players can line up quickly and read and react soon after the snap.
The pedal method is something of an extension on that because Mitchell believes the positioning it gives players allows them to make decisions and make plays. Instead of conceding things, WVU believes it will now be better able to take away things and without having to reinvent the defense.
“We’ll still run some of the same coverages, but with what we’re adding and we’re taking away, we think the pedal is going to put the kids in a better competitive situation,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said the defense still has a place for shuffling, much like the Mountaineers till have plans to play zone defense, but he’ll still opt for the pedal over the shuffle as opposed to “a lot of shuffle and just a little pedal.”
The pedal has been the focus for the first 10 practices in the spring and figures to be on display when the Mountaineers practice in public at 1 p.m. Saturday at University of Charleston’s Laidley Field. They’ve practiced it because they need the practice.
“Look at the makeup of our corners,” Mitchell said. “Brandon Napoleon was a quarterback in high school. Daryl Worley was a running back. Ickey Banks has been here, so he’s a little further ahead, but Terrrell Chestnut was probably the only true cornerback when he came in. Nanay (Kyeremeh) was a safety. You’re not talking about guys with a great background in coverage. They’re picking it up. They’ve picked it up much better this spring than they did last spring.”
The senior Banks and sophomore Worley have led the way. Kyeremeh missed last season with an injury and Napoleon barely played. Chestnut has missed some time with an injury and junior college transfer Keishawn Richardson was away from the team briefly with a family issue, which left Mitchell with just four bodies for a spring that’s progressed quickly, but pleasantly.
“If we can keep them all out there, we’re good,” Mitchell said. “We’ve made some headway, some really good headway, and we’re understanding the game better now and how the parts fit up schematically. They’re starting to be the master of their position and starting to make adjustments without me having to tell them.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.