West Virginia’s Cornerbacks: Constant Change In Coaches, Players
By Matt Keller
West Virginia faced a problem two seasons ago. The Mountaineers, despite building depth and a budding defense, were forced into another rebuilding mode, having to scour the junior college ranks for immediate help at cornerback.
It was an unproven approach for WVU, which had never taken near the numbers of junior college transfers of teams like Kansas State. But seeing the similarities between the programs – the same limited in-state recruiting numbers, the need to fill immediate holes, the lack of top 30 signing classes – the Mountaineers quite literally played the copycat game and began bringing ever-increasing numbers of junior college players into the program.
At corner, the biggest splash was made by Rasul Douglas, a 6-foot-2, 203-pounder who played at Nassau Community College. At the juco on Long Island, the New Jersey native learned to play on one, and after a season of development in Morgantown, he tied for the national lead in interceptions with eight. West Virginia also brought in a pair of transfer cornerbacks in Miami’s Antonio Crawford and Iowa’s Maurice Fleming, and all three contributed major plays to the 10-win season.
That success has segued into the continuation of the practice, as the Mountaineers have a trio of junior college players in the two-deep mix at corner in Elijah Battle, Mike Daniels and newcomer Hakeem Bailey. Battle and Daniels worked with the top unit during the Gold-Blue Spring Game, while Bailey ran with the second- and third-string alongside redshirt freshmen Jake Long and Sean Mahone.
“It’s similar to what it was last year,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said of filling the vacated corner slots. “You had Rasul and you had Crawford and you had Fleming, guys that were transfers, older guys that hadn’t played a whole lot of football here. This year you’re kind of the same way. You have Battle, who has been making plays. Bailey has really looked good at times. He’s got good length, and I like where he’s at. Mike Daniels has shown some flashes of being OK, and I think it’s going to be similar to where we were with older guys that just haven’t played a ton for us but have the ability to be able to play. I like where we’re at there.”
The idea has spread throughout much of the team, with West Virginia using players like Justin Crawford, Kyzir and Ka’Raun White and Toyous Avery from the junior college ranks. Even two of WVU’s top offensive players, quarterback Will Grier and offensive lineman Kyle Bosch, are transfers, albeit from four-year colleges. It’s a seed of an idea that has grown to produce potentially five starters on the defensive side, all of whom are juco transfers, including both cornerback positions.
The older bodies, combined with the experience and snaps played at the collegiate level, has given first-year WVU cornerbacks mentor Doug Belk some building blocks. The former Valdosta State secondary coach and Alabama graduate assistant is the third corners coach in as many seasons for the Mountaineers, and the fourth in six years after the departures of Blue Adams (who left in the offseason for USF), Brian Mitchell (Virginia Tech) and Daron Roberts.
But Belk already has a whopping five College Football Playoff games under his belt over the last three seasons alone, with the 2016 Crimson Tide defense finishing first in fewest points allowed and second in yardage. He also won a D-II national title at Valdosta and says the basic coverage ideas between what Alabama runs out of a 4-3 and what WVU does in its odd stack set are similar.
“There’s a lot of carry over from the coverages in general and the techniques,” Belk said. “I always tell the guys, and this is what I’ve learned, that if you learn the concepts rather than learning the plays, it’s a big carry over. A lot of the concepts that I have learned from playing and coaching carry over to what we do here. Little bit different communication, little bit different names, but the coverages are much the same. At the end of the day, it’s the same philosophy on a lot of things.”
West Virginia ranked second in the Big 12 in scoring defense a season ago at 24 points per game, just behind K-State’s 22.3. WVU also finished third in total defense (425.9 yards allowed per game) and second in pass defense efficiency. The latter is a more accurate numeric representation of what Gibson means when he speaks of yardage allowed being a near meaningless statistic versus today’s offenses. Rather, the emphasis should go on points allowed with regard to game play, i.e. being able to hold foes to field goals when in short-field situations. (Story continues below.)
It’s something with which the Mountaineers have excelled, even in a conference with three quarterbacks ranked in the top nine in NCAA passing yardage, and the same three in Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, OU’s Baker Mayfield and OSU’s Mason Rudolph finishing in the top 12 in pass efficiency. It is, as Belk admitted, a contrasting style to what he saw in the SEC, but one that has percolated throughout the collegiate landscape.
“It’s different, but I am excited about where we are going,” Belk said. “You gotta be able to run, you gotta be competitive, and you gotta want to win every time you step on the field regardless of who you play. We have a few of those guys. Mike Daniels, Elijah Battle and then Hakeem (Bailey). We’re learning and taking the individual drills we do to a team setting. That’s the ultimate goal: To be able to perform when we need to when it’s live tackle football.
“I try to pride myself on being a good teacher. Most of the guys we have are dominant personality guys who want to go out and compete every day. So if they know what to do and how to do it, they are a lot more successful. It’s being able to show what you have learned. It’s more about teaching than motivating.”
Belk has also brought his own touches to the WVU staff, applying some of the abstractions from Alabama’s defense and seeing if those ideals are viable with the skillsets available in Morgantown.
“We’ve had some different techniques that we’ve implemented,” he said. “Some people were comfortable at first, some people didn’t like it at first, but we’ve kind of got a medium where everyone is comfortable and everyone is playing fast. That’s the ultimate goal, to be able to implement these things and play fast and execute when it’s time to execute.
“I got a good run for three years at Valdosta State and then having a huge learning experience working with the staff at Alabama to prepare me for being able to lead the room and run the position meetings and then run the on-the-field practices and drills. We have some carry over from what Coach Adams did, so with what Coach Gibbie has done with him being a secondary guy, everything has transitioned pretty well. I have been pleased with the performance, but I think we have a long way to go. We have gotten a lot better in the couple of weeks that we’ve had on the field.”
With spring drills complete, the Mountaineers are trying to build both depth and the physical edge that’s developed at least in part during the summer conditioning session. That plays a significant role for both younger players and transfers, which often haven’t had access to top quality strength coaches and facilities.
“Everybody will get bigger, faster, stronger,” Battle said. “Now it’s about getting all the little stuff and making it better. I wanted to improve upon play recognition, understanding faster and getting in and out of my breaks faster in spring. Everybody out there can run, so it’s about having a good base and good gravity so you can get in and out. I’ve made a jump in all aspects of my game since I have been here. I’m not where I want to be, but I feel like there has been a jump.”
West Virginia would also like to see increased growth from Long and Mahone, as well as Jacquez and Jordan Adams and special teams contributor Kevin Williams. Both Williams and Jordan Adams have three seasons left in the program, while Jacquez, via his time at Milford Academy, is a redshirt freshman. In addition, the Mountaineers will add two more corners in the summer, both of who figure to compete for immediate playing time. Corey Winfield, who spent the past two seasons as a starter at Syracuse, is coming to West Virginia as a graduate transfer with one season of eligibility remaining. In addition, Fontez Davis, a late signee from Butler (Kansas) Community College, will be in the mix at cornerback as well when he arrives at WVU this summer. Davis will have three seasons of eligibility remaining.
“We are happy with that position right now, but we don’t know if we are comfortable with it yet,” Gibson said. “Where they are right now, we are in good shape. We will continue to keep building it and see how many guys we can play. It would be nice to get five or six guys, for sub packages and to just give a guy a breather. Jordan Adams is a kid who needs to step up, and he continues to get better. Mahone and Jake Long are guys who we are counting on, and they are doing some good things.
“We are playing a bunch of different guys right now just trying to get them in the mix. Hakeem Bailey, he is a kid who has made a bunch of plays, and he is very solid. He doesn’t say a whole lot, which I like. He just goes out and plays. Elijah Battle is the only guy in that room who has meaningful snaps, so I like where he is. Mike Daniels is a kid who had a very good offseason. He probably had the best offseason of anybody in that room.”