MORGANTOWN — Josh Norwood is one of the more experienced players in the West Virginia University secondary entering the 2019 football season, but this year he’ll be in an unfamiliar role for the Mountaineers.
Norwood, a Valdosta, Georgia native who began his college career at Ohio State and made a pit stop at Northwest Mississippi Community College before landing in Morgantown, made 10 starts at cornerback for WVU in 2018.
Since the end of spring practice, however, WVU has lost four safeties it was counting on having on the roster — All-Big 12 pick Kenny Robinson and former South Charleston High standout Derrek Pitts left the school via the transfer portal and incoming freshmen Osita Smith and Rashean Lynn ended up at junior colleges.
Those departures left the Mountaineers dangerously thin at the back of their defense, which prompted the coaching staff to move Norwood from corner to safety for this season.
“It was kind of a necessary deal,” WVU defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said Saturday after practice. “At Valdosta [High School], his coach [Alan Rodemaker] called him a ‘dog.’ They used to call the defense ‘dogs’ here, but a ‘dog’ means he gets after it — he practices hard and he goes after it, and Josh has got all of those attributes.
“When you think of that, you don’t think of corner, you think of a safety. Is he going to be Ronnie Lott? No, but I think he’s going to be able to help us in coverage skills. If you look at the teams in our conference, most of them are playing with corner-types at safety anyway. There are not a bunch of hammer guys.”
Norwood is going to see plenty of the field in 2019, so he’s getting a crash course in being a safety from Koenning, who also coaches the safeties in addition to his duties as the defensive coordinator for WVU. So far, Norwood has done well with the transition but Koenning said there are certainly still some things to work on.
“He’s going to have to help us,” Koenning said. “We’re going to use him — we’re going to use what he does best a lot. We’re going to put him in those positions. He’s got a lot of growing pains as far as learning some techniques and stuff.”
Safety in numbers
Even with the addition of Norwood to the group, West Virginia’s safety room remains thin on experience.
Koenning, as he often does, went into great detail Saturday breaking down who he has available and what he expects from them.
“We’re counting on, obviously, [former Bridgeport High standout Dante] Bonamico to give us some snaps,” Koenning said. “He’s an experienced guy and the rest of the guys don’t really have that much experience. You’ve got Jake Long — we moved him over there early on and thought that was a better fit for him. He’s one of our pound-for-pound strongest guys in the weight room. We signed Noah Guzman, and I think he’s a lot like Sean Mahone.
“Sean Mahone has got to take the next step and I’m constantly on him to not just be average. We really need five guys right there, and I just walked up from the locker room encouraging [freshman and former Capital High standout] Kerry Martin. Kerry is way better than what he was in the spring, and I think he can move forward now that he’s got probably a more level playing field for him as far as off the field stuff where he can focus on things he needs to focus on. Hopefully he’ll improve.”
Koenning said he thinks WVU will have enough players to do what he wants at the safety position, but also voiced his concern about depth.
“We’re not going to be blessed with a plethora of depth there, but we’ve got to be smart,” Koenning said. “The next thing is, if we play 80 plays those guys need to go 40 and 40. Those guys need to be real good on special teams as well.”
Who’s that guy?
Linebacker David Long, now with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, was the “guy” other teams needed to account for at all times on the 2018 West Virginia defense. After two practices in 2019, Koenning said he thinks he knows who might occupy that role for the Mountaineers this season — sophomore linebacker Josh Chandler.
“He is probably, of all the guys on the team — and it’s not quite in his nature yet — but he is probably going to be a guy [opposing teams] need to find,” Koenning said. “Not to start getting into game-plan stuff, but he is going to be a guy that I would say, by the middle of the year, they’re going to try to find out where he’s at.”
Keeping up with Jones
Depth along the defensive line has also been a concern for West Virginia, but that group received a boost in offseason in the form of Michigan graduate transfer Reuben Jones.
Koenning said as a group the defensive line is much better now than it was during spring practice, but the addition of Jones — listed at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds — is a big help.
“It’s like getting an IV when you’re dehydrated,” Koenning said. “You start feeling a lot better, and I feel a lot better watching [Jones] run around out there.”