WVU Position Glance: Safeties
By Greg Hunter
Despite returning just one player who was a full-time starter in 2016, West Virginia’s safety situation appears to be as strong as any position on defense.
In his first season with the Mountaineers after transferring from Lackawanna College, Kyzir White started 12 of WVU’s 13 games in 2016, missing only the win against Baylor because of a hand injury. The younger brother of former West Virginia receiver Kevin White and current WVU receiver Ka’Raun White, the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Kyzir had 58 tackles last year, the seventh most on the team. He also recorded seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage, three sacks and five pass deflections, all tops among Mountaineer returnees. Heading into his senior season at the spur safety position, the Macungie, Pa., native is receiving plenty of preseason All-American chatter. On a defense where he has gone from a new face to one of the unit’s most experienced players in the course of 12 months, West Virginia would be greatly served if Kyzir lives up to that hype. That’s not an unrealistic expectation, because he was awfully good as a rookie last year and now needs just another small step or two to become one of the best players in the Big 12.
Kyzir White will finally be joined in the Mountaineer defensive secondary by Dravon Askew-Henry. That was supposed to be the case last year, but circumstances pushed that back a season. Askew-Henry, a 6-foot, 195-pound free safety from Aliquippa, Pa., had started every game for WVU in his first two college seasons of 2014 and 2015. But a preseason knee injury last August sidelined him for the entire 2016 campaign. He has has 104 tackles, three interceptions and six pass deflections so far in his career, and after a medical redshirt last year, he now is a fourth-year junior and ready to return to action. Askew-Henry was limited in spring drills as he continued to rehab his knee, but is said to be close to 100 percent now.
So with Kyzir returning at the Spur safety and Askew-Henry back at the free safety, the only starting safety job really up for grabs in WVU’s 3-3-5 alignment is the bandit position. All indications are that former junior college transfer Toyous Avery is ticketed for that spot. A native of Covington, Ga., who played at Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College, the 5-foot-11, 202-pound Avery arrived at West Virginia last year with three seasons of eligibility remaining. After Askew-Henry’s injury, Avery was used primary at free safety, where he played in 11 games. Most of that time he backed up then-senior starter Jeremy Tyler, but Avery did get the starting call in the Russell Athletic Bowl when Tyler was battling an injury. Avery totaled 24 tackles and three pass deflections in his first season at WVU, but now with Askew-Henry’s return at free safety and the graduation of the Mountaineers’ 2016 starting bandit, Jarrod Harper, Toyous is likely going to slide over and assume the starting bandit position.
With White, Askew-Henry and Avery the likely starters at the three safety positions, West Virginia’s search this preseason will be for quality backups. And even here the Mountaineers have some experienced options.
Marvin Gross is a 6-foot-2, 195-pound fifth-year senior who has played plenty of football in his West Virginia career (37 games) with 53 tackles and two sacks. WVU’s special teams player of the year last season, he also saw considerable action as White’s backup at the spur. The Baltimore native even started the Baylor game when Kyzir was out with an injury. All Gross did in his first career start was earn the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week award, as he had six tackles, two sacks and an interception in the victory over the Bears.
Gross again figures to be White’s primary backup at the Spur, though second-year sophomore Jovanni Stewart also is in contention for playing time at that position. The 5-foot-8, 193-pound native of Katy, Texas, saw action as a true freshman last year, working mainly with West Virginia’s special teams where he had two tackles. He’ll again likely be a major part of WVU’s special teams coverage units, though he could also push for playing time at the Spur.
Shane Commodore is another experienced player who figures to fill a backup role at the free safety and/or bandit, positions that are basically interchangeable. A 6-foot, 212-pound fifth-year senior from Morgantown, Commodore is a walk-on, but he’s seen action in 18 games so far in his career, including all 13 last year. He was twice WVU’s special teams champion in 2016 and finished the season with nine tackles, as well as one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Deamonte Lindsay, a 6-foot-1, 198-pound sophomore from Martinsburg, W.Va., is another safety who saw game action last year, playing in six contests.
Besides these seven experienced safeties who are returning, West Virginia also has some younger options. Osman Kamara and Dante Bonamico are both redshirt freshmen walk-ons who have drawn high praise from the coaches. A 5-foot-10, 186-pound native of Harrisburg, Pa., Kamara figures to compete for the No. 2 free safety spot behind Askew-Henry. Bonamico, a 5-foot-8, 178-pound native of Bridgeport, W.Va., is manning a bandit position right now. He’ll also likely be a mainstay on the Mountaineer special teams.
Maybe the most promising of the young safeties is Derrek Pitts. The 6-foot, 170-pound graduate of South Charleston (W.Va.) High School spurned plenty of high level offers to enroll at WVU in January. He used spring practice to get a jump start on his college career, and the true freshman appears to be in line for major playing time this year at the bandit position, either backing up Avery or maybe even pushing him for the starting job.
In addition, the Mountaineers have four other true freshmen safeties who enrolled at WVU in early June. E.J. Brown is a big hitter from Stone Mountain, Ga., who is already drawing comparisons to Karl Joseph for his physicality. Collin Smith is a former high school quarterback from Ligonier, Pa., while Ricky Johns (6-3, 187 lbs.) and Kenny Robinson (6-3, 191 lbs.) are both long and very athletic. Johns and Robinson each appear to have the skill to stay at safety or even move to receiver if necessary. But if their frames fill out, it wouldn’t by shocking if either or both wind up at linebacker.
Previously in the Series: