Complementary Relationship Between Kyzir White And West Virginia’s 3-3-5
By Matt Keller
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Kyzir White was made for West Virginia’s defense – and vice versa.
There might, in fact, not be a better fit of physical gifts and the matching required skillset than that of White and WVU’s spur safety position. It’s a symbiotic relationship, this blending of range, speed, wingspan and power in a spot that demands just such. Tony Gibson recognized it instantly, the first time he watched White play, with the defensive coordinator later prophetically predicting that White was a nearly surefire starter.
Which is why the collective breath was held late last year, when White was forced out of the game at Iowa State with a hand injury. The Mountaineers had already lost All-Big 12 free safety Dravon Askew-Henry for the season to a torn ACL, and White’s ailment further impacted a secondary which would shuffle several players before the Russell Athletic Bowl against Miami.
White missed the regular season finale’ versus Baylor, but returned for the bowl game to make six tackles, one for a loss, and show there would be no lingering effects heading into a pivotal offseason in which the rising senior would be among the anchors to the latest of rebuilding efforts on the back end of the odd stack set.
“I think I am a lot better mentally and physically,” White said. “Just having a year of experience here at West Virginia has definitely helped me and my game. I am around the guys, in the system, so I feel a lot better. The hand? I was just out for a game. But it feels great, 100 percent.”
With White having nailed down the starting slot at spur, and Askew-Henry seemingly returning to form at free, the Mountaineers have begun to piece the safety puzzle together. Fresh off a game in which he had two interceptions called back via penalty, Toyous Avery has locked in on the bandit position. Seniors Marvin Gross and Shane Commodore are the reserves at spur and free, respectively, with Derrek Pitts battling to secure the back-up role at bandit.
That’s a solid top six. But there is no player there, not even Askew-Henry, that serves a more centralized role in what West Virginia does than White. The Lackawanna College transfer plays in the box. He attacks the run. Covers pesky slot receivers. Battles blocking schemes against significantly bigger offensive linemen. He has to be able to run, to match or exceed physicality, to flash quickness and explosion and blend it with force and leverage. No position demands a more broad package of talents, or allows the showcase of them on an every-down basis.
“Here I am in the box and guarding the slots,” White said. “It’s not easy. They are quick and fast. Shifty. I think slot receivers are the hardest to guard, to be honest. At Lackawanna, I was on the roof a lot. It was an adjustment for me. At first it was weird. I was out of my comfort zone. But as it went along, I got better at it.
“I like being in the box. Playing spur, it’s fun. I like how we get after it. Coach Gibby, he likes to blitz a lot. I love going after the quarterback and things like that. I didn’t really get a chance to do that at my juco. Coming here and doing that, I was real excited about the opportunity. Blitzing, covering, I am doing a lot of different things. It shows versatility.”
In starting all 12 games in which he played last season, White finished with 58 tackles, seven for loss, and a pair of forced fumbles. Arguably his biggest play of the season came in a turn-of-tide stemming strip sack in which White blitzed off the left side, drilling Texas quarterback Shane Buechele. He also ripped the ball from the rather dazed Buechele, who remained crumpled on the ground as the Mountaineers dodged a nearly imminent score from the Longhorns, who were at the 15-yard line.
The play not only staved off that threat, but also slowed UT’s steadily building momentum after it had rallied from down 17-3 to within 24-20 entering the fourth quarter. That score held over the final 15 minutes of play, with White and the Mountaineers hanging the first home loss on the ‘Horns while advancing to 8-1 on the season themselves.
It’s become the expectation for White, who enters his senior season as the centerpiece around which Gibson can build.
“Playing within the system,” White said of the secret to his success. “When you try to do too much, that’s when things go bad. Just listening to the coach and having my teammates’ back and just doing my job, my 1/11th, I think everything will take care of itself. Being around so many other great players on our team, I feel like you have to push yourself. You want to push yourself just that much more so you don’t look like you are unmotivated.”