Coming off a season in which the Mountaineers defense ranked 114th nationally (out of 120 Division I teams) in scoring defense at 38.1 points per-game, West Virginia will look to solve a myriad of defensive issues which caused its 2012 slide to mediocrity.
Last year’s defense was historically bad to put it mildly. The 38.1 points per-game were the most allowed in school history.
Only three times in WVU history has the defense given up an average of 30 or more points per-game. The 1978 team finshed with a 2-9 record giving up 33.1 points per-game under then head coach Frank Cignetti. During Don Nehlen’s last season as head coach in 2000, WVU finished at 7-5 and gave up 30.3 points on average.
The Mountaineers finished with a similar 7-6 record last season and a big reason why was an abysmal secondary performance. WVU ranked 118th in pass defense and gave up 4,063 total yards. Only two teams in the nation were worse, Baylor (4,206) and Louisiana Tech (4,085).
Tony Gibson has returned to coach the safeties this season. The Mountaineers won or shared four Big East titles during his last stint in Morgantown, capturing BCS bowl victories following the 2005 (Sugar Bowl) and 2007 (Fiesta Bowl) seasons.
Sophomore safety Karl Joseph was a bright spot last year during his true freshmen campaign, he led the team with 102 tackles. WVU will look to build around Joseph this season and can only hope that senior safety Darwin Cook returns to form. The two should form a very formidable safety tandem with plenty of experience and skills that WVU will rely heavily on to turn the pass defense around. A pass defense that gave up 22 passing plays of 50 yards or more, which is a bit hard to fathom.
The defensive backs will be coached by Brian Mitchell in his first season at WVU. Mitchell comes from East Carolina and has coached nine defensive backs that have advanced to the NFL.
Senior Pat Miller is gone, which will open a spot for someone to jump in and step up. Senior Brodrick Jenkins will most likely start on one side, but the other spot is up for grabs. Junior Travis Bell could be an option after the coaching staff moved him over from safety, or he could end up back at safety, it just depends on how things play out. I’d expect Ishmael Banks to get a look as well, even though he wasn’t overly impressive on the field last season, a year of experience may make all the difference. He did start the last four games before a knee injury took him out at Iowa State. Redshirt sophomore Avery Williams could be an option to see playing time as well after coming back from a neck injury.
Sophomore Terrell Chestnut is certainly an option to play opposite Brodrick Jenkins, Chestnut came in as a highly rated cornerback recruit. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he took advantage of the opportunity and claimed the job. Another option is fellow sophomore Nana Kyeremeh, who received valuable playing time last season. Kyeremeh has blazing speed, but seems to be a bit raw in his cover corner skills. It would really help the progress of the secondary if one of these guys could step in and play well. Redshirt freshman Brandon Napoleon will add depth and could see playing time.
WVU gave up 9.36 yards per-completion on average to their opponents through the air, that’s a first down nearly every time an opposing passer dropped back to pass. New defensive schemes could play a role in helping the pass defense, but one factor that will help make a difference is experience. While the secondary still has some young players, a good many of them played at some point last season.
Last year, WVU had very little depth in the secondary, but this season depth and experience could be a plus. After the first fall practice head coach Dana Holgorsen said he couldn’t remember the last time the defense was three deep at almost every position. As opposed to last season, when the defense barely had one guy taking reps at each position.
I like the potential of sophomore safety K.J. Dillon, who played in all 13 games, he’ll add nice depth at boundary safety and can play special teams. Sophomore corneback Ricky Rumph played in nine games last season and will add depth, he’s another guy that can play some special teams as well. The coaching staff did move redshirt freshman Vernon Davis over to the offensive side of the ball in the spring, but it’s hard to tell what position he’ll eventually settle in at. The only way to find out is to let things play out on the field. Redshirt freshman Jarrod Harper should add depth at safety and could see time on special teams coverage.
The Mountaineers have a few incoming safeties that might be able to make a splash this season. Malik Greaves out of Jacksonville, Fla., is plenty talented enough to play as a true freshman. The coaching staff may choose to redshirt him, but with WVU looking for play makers in a secondary that allowed 38 passing touchdowns, only Colorado (39) was worse last season, Greaves could get an opportunity.
True freshman safety Jeremy Tyler out of Lithonia, Ga., could play early in his career as well. There’s plenty to be decided during fall camp before it’s clear what the coaching staff will do with him. True freshman Daryl Worley out of Philadelphia, Pa., is another player to look for in the future.
One thing is clear, the Mountaineers are looking for play makers. If any young guys show a glimmer of hope they could see significant playing time. It’s hard to put a finger on how much of an improvement the secondary will make going forward, but it’s also hard to imagine they could struggle nearly as bad.