Chuck McGill: WVU smart to let Joseph play his style, but limit wear and tear

West Virginia safety Karl Joseph, left, knocks down Kansas State wide receiver Curry Sexton after a catch during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Manhattan, Kan., Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013. Kansas State won Virginia 35-12. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Karl Joseph is a bandit now, and he’s not going to keep his hits holstered.

The 6-foot-1, 196-pound junior football player at West Virginia University is the team’s hardest, most devastating hitter. Throw his name in the YouTube search bar and look at the highlights from his first two collegiate seasons.

“He’s a train wreck, man,” WVU safeties coach Joe DeForest said of Joseph. “If it’s moving, he’s going to hit it ... and he’s going to hit it hard.”

Obviously, Joseph seeks out the collisions, but that is only one concern as he transitions to a more physically demanding position. Joseph simply refuses to leave the field. He might just miss out on one of those bone-jarring, fumble-causing, pain-inducing hits.

“I try to play as much as I can, even through the nicks and bruises,” Joseph said. “I try to be tough and stick it out.”

The numbers back that up. Last season, Joseph played 903 of 920 possible plays on defense — 98.1 percent. Add in 136 special teams plays, and Joseph was on the field for 1,039 plays in 2013.

The combination of Joseph’s physical style of play and his aversion to standing on the sidelines and taking a breather has the coaches’ attention this season. They don’t want to tweak the playing style of the only WVU player on the preseason All-Big 12 team, but they want to manage his workload.

Consider it a pitch count for the Mountaineers’ defensive ace.

“He wants to play every snap, but that’s our job as coaches,” said Tony Gibson, WVU’s defensive coordinator who was Joseph’s position coach last season. “You can tell when a kid is tired; you can tell when he’s gassed. I coached him last year and I don’t know if he ever came out of a game.”

Joseph had a team-high 56 unassisted tackles last season and led WVU with four fumble recoveries at free safety. Now he moves into a position that takes advantage of his versatility and physicality.

“At the bandit position I feel like I get to do a lot more than I did last year,” Joseph said. “I get to run the field a lot more, play a little bit of everything, blitz, come down in the box and also get in some of the coverage.”

That’s a lot for someone who also contributes on special teams.

“There are times he gets tired on special teams,” DeForest said, “but that’s the deal. I’m going to do a better job of spelling guys.

“How much fuel is left in his tank? What’s the score? When do you actually spell him? It’s just a matter of a balancing act.”

What it is not going to be, Gibson said, is a change in style of play. The coaches want the same Karl Joseph of the past two seasons, the one who hurls his body into the opposition without regard to personal safety.

“You know, he plays at a high level and he does sacrifice his body,” Gibson said. “He’s a big hitter as we all know.

“I don’t want to hold anybody back. We never want to play and say that’s OK you loafed on that play because we know you didn’t want to get hurt. The hell with that. You go 100 percent effort all the time and we’ll figure it out.”

That’s the task for WVU coaches with Alabama looming in eight days. DeForest raved about 6-0, 210-pound sophomore Jarrod Harper, who will be Joseph’s backup at the bandit position. Harper primarily played on special teams last season, but has impressed the coaching staff this month.

“I feel more confident in Jarrod Harper than any kid I’ve ever had as a backup in my entire career,” DeForest said. “If anything happened to Karl — God forbid, knock on wood — Jarrod Harper would not skip a beat. Jarrod Harper has made that big of a jump.

“You always talk about what’s the drop-off from a one to a two, well, Jarrod’s made it not that big of a drop-off.”

That’s mighty high praise and a promising security blanket for the team’s top defender, but the need for Joseph to stay healthy — and in the game — is vital to the fortunes of the Mountaineers this season.

“What we have to do is track the number of plays that he’s playing from week to week and pick and choose, sub packages, third downs,” Gibson said. “We can get him out and get him a breather.”

In an interview earlier this month, Joseph described his playing style in two words: physical, smart.

The balancing act is being the latter without sacrificing the former.

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