West Virginia Again Looks For Plug-And-Play Options At Cornerback
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – If competition breeds success, West Virginia’s corners are primed for another solid year.
The position is among the most wide open in camp, with returning part-time starter Elijah Battle challenging the likes of senior Mike Daniels, sophomores Hakeem Bailey and Kevin Williams and Syracuse graduate transfer Corey Winfield for the two starting spots. There’s adequate talent in the ranks, but it’s largely unproven aside from Battle, who played in 11 games and started three at WVU last season, and Winfield, a two-year starter at Syracuse who has appeared in 31 career games.
Add in that the Mountaineers are on their third cornerbacks coach in as many seasons in Doug Belk, and the position will be among the most closely watched as fall camp progresses.
“I feel like all these guys have a chip on their shoulder and they have a lot to prove with so many people exiting in the last two years,” said Belk, a former graduate assistant at Alabama who is in his first full-time coaching position at the major collegiate level. “I like the way they compete and how much it means to them. Just the competitive edge right now.”
West Virginia managed to rebuild the unit last year, replacing Daryl Worley, Terrell Chestnut and Ricky Rumph with transfers Rasul Douglas out of Nassau Community College and Miami’s Antonio Crawford. Douglas went on to tie for the national lead in interceptions with eight in earning first-team All-Big 12 honors. Crawford played in eight games, starting three while challenging Battle and Iowa transfer Maurice Fleming for the starting slot on the left side.
It’s become a pattern in WVU’s revolving door of corner play. The Mountaineers have lost their top shelf talent each of the last two years and plugged in transfers while awaiting the development of underclassmen like Jordan and Jacquez Adams, Jake Long and Sean Mahone. And while West Virginia figures to have excellent depth in the coming years, the present task is to find a solid first and second team with the opener against Virginia Tech looming.
“There are a lot of guys motivated to try to become the guy or one of the guys,” Belk said. “We have a lot of competition in the room and I feel good about where we’re at. We have a lot of work to do, but I feel good about where we’ll end up.”
The expectation is that Battle claims the right corner slot, with Daniels and Winfield jousting for the starting position on the left side. That leaves half a dozen candidates for reserve spots, which could be an ongoing competition heading the regular season.
“Consistency has been the thing we’ve focused on the most, not having one good day but putting a couple good days together and building off what we did the day before,” said Belk, who helped mentor six NFL and four All-American defensive backs at Alabama. “For me, it’s about a hard hat mentality and always coming to work and get better each and every day and finding something to build off of and never getting complacent.”
That approach fit with Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, and it’s a primary aspect of Tony Gibson’s WVU defense as well. What Belk said he’s still searching for is a leader to emerge from the nearly dozen players jockeying for a top four spot, though he has his eye on one particular senior.
“I have challenged (Battle) to become more of a vocal leader,” he said. “In some ways he is quiet by nature, but he has done a good job of ingraining himself with the rest of the guys and trying to be the guy who sets the tone for the room.”