Battle Major Piece In Latest Of West Virginia’s Secondary Rebuilds
By Matt Keller
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Elijah Battle is on his third position coach in as many years, and his fourth different one in just five seasons.
Such has become the norm for West Virginia’s cornerbacks, who have been mentored by Brian Mitchell (now at Virginia Tech), Blue Adams (South Florida) and now Doug Belk in a three-year span. Add in Battle’s two seasons at Dodge City Community College, and his final year at Barringer High in Newark, N.J., and he has barely had time to delve into the intricacies before they change with the newest incoming coach.
It’s made truly mastering the position difficult, though Battle acknowledges that having so many different insights and approaches has made his game a well-rounded one. That showed last season, when he made continuous improvement during the season while playing in the final 11 games and starting three. His best came in the last regular season game against Baylor, when Battle made a career-best seven tackles, including six solo.
Tha helped spring board him into the offseason, where he elevated himself into the top spot at right corner opposite fellow junior college transfer Mike Daniels. The two seniors will anchor a cornerback depth chart otherwise littered with primarily redshirt freshmen and sophomores like Jordan and Jacquez Adams, Jake Long, Sean Mahone, Hakeem Bailey and Kevin Williams, among others.
“I’m just trying to be a leader for the young guys,” said Battle, who tallied 23 total tackles last year, with one tackle for loss and a pass break-up. “Show them the right way to do stuff, the right way to work and help them and bring them along.”
Battle should benefit from a full season of play and strength and conditioning at the major college level. Combine that with being coached by among the most knowledgeable young assistant coaches in the country in Belk – who came highly recommended from Alabama head coach Nick Saban – and Battle is expected to have his best year yet. Belk, after all, worked with four All-Americans at ‘Bama in safeties Landon Collins (2014) and Eddie Jackson (2015) and corners Minkah Fitzpatrick (2016) and Marlon Humphrey (2016). Three of the four played in the NFL, along with corner Cyrus Jones, who was also with the Tide during Belk’s three seasons there as a graduate assistant secondary coach.
“It’s going good with coach Belk; He’s way more comfortable now, and everyone’s more comfortable now with coach Belk,” Battle said. “He’s doing a good job. All the young guys are really stepping up and improving. It’s kinda everybody doing their part and what they do.”
Still, West Virginia must get at least two, and preferably four, more players to elevate their game and solidify the two-deep. Bailey has shown flashes behind Daniels on the left side, while the multitude of younger players jostle behind Battle on the right. The hope is that graduate transfer Corey Winfield, who came to WVU after a four-year career at Syracuse, will make an immediate impact after starting the last two seasons and playing in 31 career games with 85 tackles, two interceptions and six pass break-ups.
That still leaves plenty of work for Belk, who won’t have nearly the talent available as he did when Alabama was going 40-4, earning three College Football Playoff appearances and winning the 2015 National Championship during his time there. But there are fewer more promising young minds who have worked with defensive stalwarts like Saban and former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator and current Georgia head coach Kirby Smart.
That knowledge and influence has started to show itself in Belk, who the players say places increasing stress on not duplicating mistakes and a constant drive to improve daily. That’s bled into the voluntary player-organized drill sessions, where the corners are getting tested by a series of solid wideouts.
“We match up with the receivers sometimes, just work on releases and things,” Battle said of his offseason workouts. “I learned you have to take care of your body, do everything you need to do to get your body back right for the next day so you’re able to train hard. Some days the running is real tough, some days the lifting is tough. It’s all tough. Tire flips, all that. You have to get ready and train, and the rest of it will take care of itself.”