2016 West Virginia Preview: Secondary

7th in a 10-part series previewing West Virginia’s football team ahead of the upcoming season.

In part 7 we’re going to look at one of the units most affected by both attrition and graduation going into the season: the secondary. Now that Dravon Henry is out for the year, the “5” on the back end of our odd stack will be breaking in new starters at every position, and return only 3 of their league-leading 23 interceptions from a year ago. There’s a decent amount of talent and athleticism available but almost no experience, and we need a couple of the guys to step up and prove that they can make plays at the D1 level.

THE SAFETIES

I’ve had this thing most of the way written for a few weeks now, but have been holding off on posting it with the intention letting the first few weeks of camp settle the depth chart a little bit. I did not expect the wait to throw things further into upheaval.

Originally, Dravon Askew-Henry was going to get his own section before diving into the rest of the group. The name of that section? The Next Karl. One of the reasons I was optimistic about the rest of the unit is because I knew we had an absolute stud as a safety blanket. Dravon was not only our best defensive player, but with the turnover in the defensive backfield, he was also probably our least expendable, and I thought he was poised to step out of his predecessor’s shadow with a huge year. I did not think he’d rip his knee up in a non-contact drill and literally become the Next Karl.

Quick side note, what the hell are these non-contact drills that we’re running? I’ve just heard that Brendan Ferns has torn his knee in one, as well. Can we just ban all non-contact drills? Or at least the ones that have gobbled up our best defenders’ knees in back-to-back seasons?

Anyways, we learned to play without Joseph last year, so to avoid feeling too sorry for ourselves let’s move on to the guys who will actually be out there.

Henry’s free safety spot was one of the only real certainties on the defensive depth chart, but I now expect there to be as many as 3 guys in the mix for the job. First dibs will probably go to Jeremy Tyler.

Tyler is a 5’11 207 lb senior with 33 career appearances. He’s been the secondary’s “6th man” for the past few seasons, seeing lots of time at both bandit and spur, and was actually in the mix at FS as recently as last fall until Dravon re-locked down the starting spot.

As far as replacing a potential All-Conference player goes, Tyler’s about as good as you could hope for on such short notice. He’s experienced and talented, and showed a decent knack for making plays last year, recording an interception, a couple pass breakups, and a forced fumble. He’s also shown that he’s ready to continue that trend this fall in Dravon’s absence, picking off 2 passes and returning both for touchdowns in Saturday’s scrimmage. The exchange rate for Skyler INTs to real Big 12 QB INTs is yet to be determined, but it’s at least encouraging to see that he’s not shying away from his opportunity.

Adding depth will be Toyous Avery, a 5’11 195 lb redshirt sophomore. He looks a good athlete and seems to have a good nose for the ball on paper, posting 69 tackles, 5 interceptions, and 5 pass breakups in 11 games last year, but as a new JUCO transfer, he’s unproven at the D1 level.

Khairi Sharif is the third guy who should expect to get a look. The 5’9 redshirt senior appeared in all 13 games a year ago, but was used mostly on special teams. Like Avery, he looks like a solid athlete but hasn’t yet proven that he can be trusted to be a key contributor.

THE SPURS

In the 3-3-5, the Spur is a kind of hybrid LB/S, so to really excel you have to be able to do a little bit of everything. One play you might be asked to lock up man on a slot receiver, and then on the next play you’ll be rushing the QB. KJ Dillon was such an important player for us because these tasks never overwhelmed him, and that flexibility freed the rest of the group to focus on being effective in their own roles.

The guy currently slated to step into that KJ role is Marvin Gross Jr. The redshirt junior has appeared in 24 career games and at 6’3 210, he certainly passes the eye test athletically. The thing to watch with Marvin, and indeed all of the guys competing for this spot, will be how well the handle they’re able to handle the sheer scope of responsibilities that come with the job. We know Gross will be solid in run support and probably more than solid as a pass rusher (21 sacks his senior year of HS), but we don’t know how well he’ll handle playing in space full-time. The Spur has to be able to stay with slot receivers or backs out of the backfield and then tackle them 1 v 1 in the event that they get the ball, and it’s not a given that Gross will be able to do that consistently.

Pushing Gross for playing time will be JUCO legacy Kyzir White, younger brother of Kevin and KaRaun. Kyzir comes to Morgantown as the top-rated JUCO safety in last year’s class, and with all the turnover in our secondary he’s walked into he perfect opportunity to showcase those talents right away.

At 6’3 221, Kyzir is every bit as physically imposing as his brothers, so you can only imagine the destruction when those traits are applied to the other side of the ball. He had 37 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 4 pass breakups in 10 games last year, and on paper he looks to tick every box in terms of what we’re looking for in a Spur. The key to early playing time will be how well he’s able to apply those abilities to our scheme. If he’s able to pick it up relatively quickly then I wouldn’t be surprised to see him overtake Gross for the starting spot, because the talent is there for him to be an absolute wrecking machine.

The third guy in the mix will be redshirt freshman and Martinsburg native Deamonte Lindsay, who looks to be coming along reasonably well. I haven’t heard a ton about him lately, but he looks athletic, and the fact that he was on the preseason 2-deep is encouraging. From a purely superficial point of view, my main concern will be how well he handles himself at the point of attack. At 6’2 200 he’s a bit smaller than both Gross and Kyzir, and with only a year in the program he’s probably not as strong as those guys either. Regardless, he should provide decent depth and I’ll be interested to watch his continued development.

THE BANDITS

The Bandit in West Virginia’s 3-3-5 stack is similar to the Spur, again combining the responsibilities of a linebacker and safety into a hybrid role. This was the Karl Joseph role last year, and like the Spur it’s a position that we’ll ask a lot of. Jeremy Tyler was penciled in to start here, but as we discussed earlier, he’s probably sliding over to Free to cover for Dravon. That leaves Jarrod Harper in line to start, which he did 9 times last year while deputizing for the injured Joseph.

Harper is a 6’1 216 lb redshirt senior with 38 career appearances, and was actually pretty impressive last year once he got his opportunity. He recorded 36 tackles and 4 pass breakups in Karl’s absence, and was one of several standouts during our defense’s impressive run down the stretch. This is one spot where we might find that Joseph’s injury was a blessing in disguise: we’ve already learned how to play without our best player once, Harper did well as the guy who replaced him, and it’s not unreasonable to think that he can do so again.

One thing to be a bit nervous about with the bandits is the lack of true depth at the position. The only guy listed behind Harper on the preseason depth chart is Morgantown-native Shane Commodore, who I’m sure is a fine player, but is probably not somebody that we want out there on important downs. The Spur and Bandit are similar enough that I think any of Gross, White, or Lindsay could fill in for Harper in the case of an emergency, but considering our luck at safety over the past few seasons, I’d feel a lot better if we had more than 4 guys capable of contributing.

THE CORNERS

All due respect to Skyler and the QB’s, but this is the spot where I’m most nervous heading into 9/3. There are probably as many as 6 or 7 guys in the mix for playing time, but only one has ever started for us (Nana Kyeremeh once) and most are either JUCO guys or transfers who have never played for us before. There’s a lot to like about the size and athleticism in the group, but unfortunately it’s mostly unproven.

Rasul Douglas is one of two holdovers from last year’s group, and is one of the guys currently slated to start on the most recent depth chart. The 6’2 203 lb redshirt senior appeared in 11 games last season in his first year on campus and impressed with his physicality, recording a couple tackles, an interception, and a pass breakup. He played very well in stretches and saw extensive time against Baylor, TCU, and Texas Tech, but was never consistent enough to unseat Chestnut or Worley. If he can add that to his game then I don’t feel awful about him being one of the guys we count on.

The other guy that’s penciled in to start right now is Antonio Crawford. The 5’10 185 lb redshirt senior transfer sat out last year after transferring from Miami, but appeared in 38 games and made 2 starts in 3 years with the Hurricanes, posting 19 tackles and 5 pass breakups in his final season with them. He seems like a very good athlete, and while we ultimately don’t know a whole lot about him, I feel like there’s 2 things we can be optimistic about.

First, he’s from The U. I don’t know if it’s the awesome 30 for 30’s or simply PTSD from watching the Canes kick our ass for the majority of my childhood, but for me there’s still an aura around that program, and more specifically about the kind of athletes that they recruit. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel at least a hint of “if he’s good enough for them then he’s definitely good enough for us” with Crawford.

Second, and more importantly, he’s the first guy we’ve seen force his way up the depth chart. Crawford was firmly behind Nana Kyeremeh as recently as 3 weeks ago, but is now listed ahead of him. Any time you have a position battle like this one, the best case scenario is to have at least one guy separate themselves and simply claim the spot, and I think that might be what we’re seeing here with Crawford. I suppose it could also just be a case of him sucking the least, but for now I’m going to be encouraged by it.

Other names competing for time include the aforementioned Kyeremeh, Iowa graduate transfer Maurice Fleming, and JUCO transfers Elijah Battle and Mike Daniels.

Kyeremeh is the other holdover from last year, and is the only experienced member of the group who started his college career at West Virginia. The 5’10 191 lb redshirt senior has appeared in 30 games throughout his career, and like Douglas, he occasionally played some really good football last year but was too inconsistent to warrant more playing time. His experience in the program and system should be invaluable to all of the newcomers, and he should definitely be able to contribute off the field regardless of how much he ends up contributing on it.

Mo Fleming is a guy who’s been around the block, and at 6′ 205 he has the frame and athleticism to be disruptive at the line and in man coverage. Fleming contributed in all 14 of Iowa’s games a year ago, and even though the Big 10 ain’t exactly the Wild West as far as offense is concerned, it’s nice to have another guy with major D1 experience.

Elijah Battle is a converted safety whose length should help him disrupt receivers’ releases. Coaches have praised his feel for the game, and even though he’s still learning the position, he’s able to get himself in good spots based on instinct. His development will fun to keep an eye on.

Mike Daniels is probably the last guy firmly in the mix for playing time. At 5’11 210 he may not have your prototypical corner body type, but by all accounts he’s extremely physical and uses his frame well in coverage. He may be the best pure cover guy of all the newcomers, and had 7 interceptions in 11 games last year on the way to a JUCO All-American selection. He has a redshirt available if necessary, but with that kind of production and ability it’s not hard to envision him contributing right away.

Filling out the roster, but probably not competing for time are several talented youngsters. Jake Long, Sean Mahone, and both of Jordan and Jacquez Adams all figure to be big contributors at some point in their Mountaineer careers, but all of them probably need another year before they’re ready to step in and play big minutes. I’m not going to rule out one or more of them getting some time this year, especially with a wide open competition and dudes dropping like flies, but let’s just say that I hope it doesn’t come to that.

POSITION GRADE: 2.5/5

Overall, we just can’t know what to expect from this group. The Big 12 can be a scary place for even the best of secondaries, but it turns into Thunderdome when you consider the prospect of trying to stop those offenses with 5 new starters. I suppose you could consider that 2.5 a measurement of my confidence level in our ability to do so. Even considering our lack of D1 experience, there’s enough talent and athleticism around that with Dravon you could’ve probably talked me into a 3.5 here, but without him there are just too many unknowns to have any sort of genuine optimism.

At Spur, we don’t know if Marvin Gross is going to be able to hold up in coverage, and if he can’t, we don’t know how quickly Kyzir White will be ready to take the reigns. What do we do if our most important defensive position is shackled by either of those concerns?

We also don’t know how well Jeremy Tyler and Jarrod Harper are going to adjust to being THE guys. They both admittedly played well when called upon last year, but they were thrown into the grinder without any time to consider the stakes. This year we’re counting on them to anchor our defensive backfield. Will they flinch in the face of that additional pressure, or will they hit the ground running?

And most importantly, we have only a small idea about who our corners will be, and almost no idea about what we’ll be able to trust them with. This was the biggest problem facing our defense back in April when we still thought Dravon would be around to clean up some messes; it’s a considerably bigger problem now with 17 days until Missouri and no Dravon. We have a lot of big, athletic dudes in the rotation, which in theory should lend itself nicely to the aggressive style that Gibby wants to play, but we can’t be certain that any of them are going to be able to man up well enough for that to be effective. And continuing along this line of thought, if we can’t trust guys to play that way, how are we going to stop anybody? We excelled on D last year because we got after people on 3rd down and generated a ton turnovers; can we be as effective this year if we’re forced to play more conservatively?

Despite this mountain of concerns, I do actually think there is one thing that the group has working for them, and that’s the “Nobody believes in us” card. Most of these guys are graduate or junior college transfers, which probably means that they’ve all been told that they weren’t good enough at one time or another, and now they’ve spent the whole offseason listening to people talk about how bad they’re going to be, culminating over the past few days with the Dravon Henry injury. Think about that for a minute. It was probably getting old by May, and by now it has to be like a splinter in the back of their minds. In that situation, wouldn’t you want nothing more than to come out Week 1 and shut everybody the F up? You’d have to think that this group has a MASSIVE chip on their collective shoulder. Whether it’s enough to turn them into a competent unit is another story (and personally it feels like there’s probably too much that has to go right), but at the very least I think we can be confident that each and every one of these guys is going to be absolutely busting their ass to prove they belong this year. I can live with that. I think.

 

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