Coaches First to Admit WVU’s Pass Coverage Must Improve
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s defense was a big question mark heading into the season.
Now two games into the 2018 campaign, what do we know?
The two grad transfers, Kenny Bigelow and Jabril Robinson, have helped solidify WVU’s d-line.
West Virginia’s three starting safeties – spur Dravon Askew-Henry, bandit Toyous Avery and free Kenny Robinson – are all playing at a high level.
The Mountaineer linebacking corps features the defense’s best individual player in David Long, but injuries to three of the unit’s top five have left this group so thin that WVU has converted 5-foot-9, 195-pound safety JoVanni Stewart into a strong-side linebacker.
Through it all, though, the biggest question mark for the defense is still at cornerback, where West Virginia is trying to develop a rotation out of four fairly inexperienced players.
“It needs to keep improving,” noted WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen of the Mountaineers’ pass coverage. “Our pass rush has been OK. It needs to keep getting better, which I think it will. Those (defensive) linemen, I think, are going to continue to get better. We didn’t pressure a whole lot last week (against Youngstown State), which we knew we had that up our sleeve, and we can pressure as much as we want.
“Coverage-wise, we still have work to do,” added Holgorsen. “We need to get out there and do a whole bunch of work to try to get ourselves better. We have a lot of good competition going on at corner. I was happy with how (redshirt junior) Keith Washington went in and played. (Sophomore) Derrek Pitts is going to get better and better. (Redshirt junior) Josh Norwood is going to get better and better. (Redshirt junior cornerback) Hakeem Bailey needs to regroup a little bit and practice. I’ve seen that kid make a ton of plays. There’s good competition going on with those four.”
Bailey is the most experienced of WVU’s top four corners, having played in 11 games last season, starting three of them, and recording 32 tackles and six pass breakups. The Iowa Western Community College grad arrived at West Virginia in January of 2017 with three years of eligibility remaining at that point. But the coaches will tell you that while Hakeem’s talent level is very high, his confidence level can waver. It was apparently an issue against Youngstown State, as he was pulled fairly early in the contest, and Pitts, Norwood and Washington wound up seeing most of the action.
“I thought, early on, we were good,” WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said in assessing the Mountaineers’ cornerback play in West Virginia’s 52-17 win over the Penguins. “Norwood made a really good play early. But then we got beat on a couple of double moves, and there’s no excuse for that, especially when the score at one point was 42-14. I told the guys, ‘Just don’t let anything behind you.’ Then, we ended up getting beat on a 43-yard double move. That was embarrassing, number one. But, number two, it was bad technique all the way around.”
Against YSU, Washington got the most extensive action of his young Mountaineer career. A 6-foot, 172-pounder from Prattville, Ala., Washington spent two seasons at Michigan (2015-16) before transferring to Copiah-Lincoln (Ala.) C.C. in 2017. A season at Co-Lin led him to WVU last January, and now he’s trying to work his way into the mix for more playing time. His performance against Youngstown State will probably help that, as he was named the Mountaineers’ defensive player of the game by the coaches after recording three tackles.
“As a defense, we just wanted to go out there and play,” noted Gibson. “Keith Washington was a perfect example. I think he ended up getting 25 or 28 defensive snaps, and he was our defensive player of the game for the fact that he played physical. He fit the tight end run game really well. They were trying to run the ball at him, and he came up and made a few big hits. So, it was good to see. He was good in coverage. He didn’t get to play a lot of man, but he was good in the zone stuff. He’s a kid that, obviously, earned more playing time off his second-half results on Saturday, and he’s going to play a lot more.”
As for Pitts, his performance against the Penguins was a mixed bag. The Dunbar, W.Va., native had three tackles and three pass breakup. As is his style, he was aggressive, though at times a little too so.
“There’s good and bad,” Gibson said of Pitts, who played safety last year as a true freshman for WVU but has moved over to cornerback this past spring.” I thought he was active early. He had a nice pass break up. He should’ve had an interception, but he ended up having three PBUs for the game. He played physical and tackled pretty well. He tackled the wide-out one time without the ball pretty well; he got a PI (pass interference) call for that. He just has to get his confidence up and keep going. But he’s going to play a lot for us.”
The corners are only part of the pass coverage equation. Gibson said the safeties and linebackers need to do a better job as well.
“They have to quit biting so hard on play action and get their eyes right,” noted Gibson, who is in his fifth season as WVU’s defensive coordinator. “A lot of times, they have four guys in a route and we only have three guys defending; that’s not good for us. We have to get that fixed. We’re going to tweak some things.”
West Virginia’s pass defense was going to get its toughest test to date against N.C. State this coming weekend. But Hurricane Florence put an end to that trip to Raleigh, and the Mountaineers will have to make their fixes in practice this week ahead of their Big 12 opener against Kansas State next Saturday.
“We had a lot of good stuff going into this week, because this was going to be the first true quarterback we were going to see throwing the ball,” said Gibson in reference to the Wolfpack’s QB, Ryan Finley. “We’ll get to work that in practice, and there’s nobody better to work it on than Will (Grier). We’ll see how we hold up against on our offense. It’s good timing, actually, for us to be able to get some new coverages and doing some different stuff.”