By MIKE CASAZZA DAILY MAIL SPORTSWRITER
MORGANTOWN, W.VA. — Seeing as if West Virginia is at the point of preseason camp where depth charts take form and coaches reach clarity about battles for starting spots, this might not sound like the best news from one half of the competition for the top spot at free safety.
“Right now,” sophomore Jeremy Tyler said, “I’m getting back to the high school mode.”
It must not be forgotten the Mountaineers open the season against Alabama, about as far from high school as college football can get. And it can’t be overlooked that this is actually a good development for Tyler and as big a reason as any that he’s right there with freshman Dravon Henry after 13 days of practicing in preseason camp.
“I’m feeling way more comfortable than I was last year,” said Tyler, who started the final game of the season and played in seven others last season, his first out of Martin Luther King High in Lithonia, Georgia. “As a true freshman, you just don’t want to make any mistakes. You want to go out and have fun, but at the same time, do your job and be clear of mistakes.”
Tyler is known to be a big hitter when he’s feeling loose, but he was tucked in last season. That’s commendable, but not always desirable at the bandit position, which is closer to the action than free safety and asks players to be bigger than they are to make plays near the line of scrimmage.
His caution wasn’t a bad habit, and Tyler would play special teams and later replace Darwin Cook when he was injured against Kansas. Tyler jumped in and made three tackles in about a half of football and earned the start for the season finale a week later.
“I knew I was up to the challenge,” he said. “I wanted to show it. I knew I was capable of making plays, but I wanted everyone else to see, ‘OK, this is a good fit for this team.’ ”
It was impossible to ignore. Tyler finished with 10 tackles – all unassisted – and 21/2 tackles for a loss, plus a pass breakup and a forced fumble.
“It showed to me that he can handle it,” bandit safety Karl Joseph said. “He was a freshman and of course there are going to be mistakes, but it showed he can definitely handle it and make plays.”
He’s in a different position now, one that’s in charge of keeping the roof on the defense, but he’s adjusted after an offseason in the weight room and a wealth of reps in spring football and the first two weeks of this camp.
He plays faster and with more authority. Not many days pass by without a coach or a teammate talking about Tyler making a flashy or physical play.
“When you’re young and you get out there, the angles are off a little bit just because the speed of the game is so different,” said defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, who was the safeties coach last season and is in charge of linebackers now. “The other thing is you’re not in the weight room pounding weights all winter and getting physically ready to play this game. That has a lot to do with a young kid’s confidence.
“That can get broken at any time, and I think Jeremy went through that a little bit a year ago. But he’s matured so much and has a better understanding than when he was repping last year with the (third team) and once in a while with the (second team). He’s more mature. Physically he looks better. I think all that picked his confidence back up.”
Tyler hasn’t felt this good since he as in high school two years ago. He knew what he was supposed to do on defense and he felt like he belonged. He was a team captain and ended up Class 5A all-state. Tyler could player quarterback and both safety spots for his team, but there were times he’d play linebacker and cornerback, too. The defense allowed 7.7 points per game and led the way to a 10-0 regular season record and the second round of the state playoffs.
WVU wasn’t sure it would get Tyler in the 2013 recruiting class, though. He wasn’t committed to any school on national signing day and was considering Vanderbilt, Texas Tech and Ole Miss, which had the added appeal of a top-tier recruiting class. Tyler, considered a top 50 safety nationally, instead picked the Mountaineers early on signing day based on a strong relationship with since departed running backs coach Robert Gillespie.
Now Tyler is working with another elite recruit. Henry was arguably the prize of the 2014 recruiting class who made Pennsylvania’s Class 2A all-state at different positions in 2013 and 2013. Coach Dana Holgorsen said Monday Henry and quarterback William Crest are the only freshman right now who won’t redshirt. Tyler knows what that takes, and he sees it in Henry.
“I’ll help him out on a couple plays, help him out with a couple of the schemes we run, but he’s a mature guy already,” Tyler said. “He picks up stuff really fast.”
No matter the starter, both Henry and Tyler, who is about 20 pounds heavier, will play and man a key role for WVU’s redesigned defense.
“They’re kind of similar,” Gibson said. “They have pretty good cover skills. They’re both not scared to hit people. They’ll both run the alley and do some good things. They’ve both flashed at certain times in camp and shown the ability to make some plays.
“We’ll keep bringing both of them along because we need both of them to play. We’re not going to say, ‘Hey, you’re the starter, you’re going to play 100 snaps.’ That’s unrealistic. They’re both going to play and switch off without dropping off.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.