MORGANTOWN — The college football offseason has arrived at the beginning of the end. The first two preseason awards watch lists were released Monday and the last of the 15 will be unveiled July 18. There hasn’t been much of a West Virginia presence yet, but the Mountaineers expect a crescendo soon.
Junior safety Karl Joseph was named to the Bednarik Award watch list Monday, designating him as one of 76 preseason possibilities to end up as the national defensive player of the year. No Mountaineers were mentioned Tuesday on the watch lists for the John Mackey Award (best tight end) and Rimington Trophy (best center), but things could pick up Wednesday.
The watch lists for the Lou Groza (best placekicker) and Ray Guy (best punter) awards will be announced and WVU could see sophomore kicker Josh Lambert and junior punter Nick O’Toole included. Lambert made 17 of 23 field-goal attempts last season and was perfect (6-for-6) inside 30 yards and pretty good (10-for-12) between 30 and 49 yards. O’Toole ranked No. 15 nationally in punting average (44.1 yards) and helped WVU rank No. 7 in net punting (40.7). He’ll also be one of three players representing the Mountaineers at Big 12 media days later this month.
Joseph could also merit inclusion on the Bronko Nagurski Trophy list (best defensive player) and senior offensive guard Quinton Spain might get a spot on the Outland Trophy (best lineman) watch list. Both are revealed Thursday, but Friday might be the most interesting for WVU.
“I want to help the team be the best it can be, we want to win a Big 12 championship, but if I could point out individual goals,” sophomore cornerback Daryl Worley said. “I’m definitely looking for the Jim Thorpe (Award).”
That one goes to the nation’s best defensive back and it might include Joseph before it includes Worley, who, to be fair, was referring to the award at the end of the season. Still, a watch list spot for Worley shouldn’t be entirely disregarded. Oklahoma’s Blake Bell made the Mackey watch list Tuesday. He was the Sooners quarterback last season and only started playing tight end in the spring, which was cut short by a knee sprain.
Worley, a sophomore from Philadelphia, played 11 games with five starts last season and finished with 45 tackles and five pass breakups, which ranked second on the team. He played everywhere in the secondary last season out of both necessity and ingenuity, but also because the coaches weren’t really sure until this past spring whether he was a cornerback or a safety.
He’s locked in at cornerback and one just the right side of the field for this fall. So impressive was his performance in the spring, so high is his potential for his second season that he, too, was invited by WVU coach Dana Holgorsen to the conference media days.
“Now, with me being solidified at one position and being at cornerback, I’d like to work to be the best cornerback I can be,” he said. “People can call it a shutdown corner. I just call it doing my job. If there’s a time out there where a receiver one game doesn’t catch a ball all game, I feel like I’ve done my job. With me doing that, I’m doing nothing but helping everyone else around me, from the safeties to the corner on the other side of the field.”
The secondary started to come together when WVU found a permanent spot for Worley in the spring. He stood opposite senior cornerback Ishmael Banks. Joseph is a fixture at the bandit safety spot and junior K.J. Dillon took off at the hybrid linebacker/safety spur position. Sophomore Jeremy Tyler and junior Ricky Rumph will battle again in August for the top spot at free safety, but the talent and the depth in the defensive backfield will still be a strength for a group that’s struggled mightily the past two seasons.
Holgorsen said after the spring game the “athleticism in the secondary is not even close” to where it had been and thought his receivers were struggling with productivity and confidence because of the way the safeties and cornerbacks surged toward the finish.
When defensive coordinator Tony Gibson started meeting with his players in June and revisited the clips from the spring, the feeling was just as strong.
“I thought Worley, Karl Joseph, K.J. Dillon, all those guys stepped up and had a great spring,” Gibson sad. “Going back and watching it, I feel like those guys are all ahead of where they were a year ago. I think the continuity of having those guys all there and at the same positions now and being able to work with them in the summer only helps.”
Players like Worley have benefited from the NCAA’s new rule allowing teams to work with coaches for eight hours a week for eight weeks in the summer. Included is a maximum of two hours of film a week, which has slowed the game down for Worley and allowed him to read and react much quicker now than before.
WVU built a two-week break into the eight weeks, and this is the second week with coaches on vacation and away from the players. Most of those players, though, remain on campus for workouts and practices. Knowing the defense is counting on him, Worley is careful to count how many passes his receiver catches.
“Just because I’m so competitive,” he said. “I don’t like to lose. These are my teammates, but when we’re out there, I’m doing everything I can do to make everyone better, including myself, so I do keep track.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogscharlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.