Experienced Bailey Must Be Anchor For WVU Cornerbacks
To the most typical of fans, the fate of West Virginia’s 2018 football team that enters its final week of spring practice culminating with Saturday’s Gold-Blue Game rests on the right arm of quarterback Will Grier.
And certainly, any analysis of the team begins right there, for one saw a year ago the result of what happened to the offense when Grier went down with a grotesquely broken finger in the Texas game that kept him sidelined for the remainder of the season.
But almost equally important to the success of the Mountaineers playing in a league as wide open as the Big 12 is the play of their cornerbacks and in that regard it makes Hakeem Bailey the man holding the fate of the season on his performance.
We single out Bailey among a group of corners who are going to have to step forward for two reasons. To begin with, the junior is the most experienced of the group, meaning he has to assume leadership duties, and because he has come to understand what it takes to be a good cornerback in big-time football.
“I took a lot from last year. I had my ups and downs. It made me what I am today. It humbled me some more,” Bailey said recently.
His sophomore season was certainly a rollercoaster ride in a league where he was facing quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahaoma; Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph; TCU’s Kenny Hill and Texas Tech’s Nic Shimonek week after week.
He was asked to name his high and low moments and to explain how you handle such situations.
“My best moment was the Iowa State game, that last drive. And the worst moment was the TCU game, like that third down play where they got the first down,” Bailey said.
Those were big moments in his development. The TCU game was tied at 24 with 9:40 left when the Horned Frogs took over and went on a drive. They got into scoring positions and seemed to have blown it when WVU’s Elijah Battle appeared to interept Kenny Hill’s deep pass at the 1.
But replay officials ruled that Battle did not have possession of the ball as he dragged his feet on the playing field, giving TCU another shot from the 34.
Two plays later Hill completed a third-and-7 pass to John Diarse, who evaded Bailey in the flat and went 23 yards to set up Hill’s winning, 3-yard touchdown run.
Bailey suffered through a lot of warts in the Iowa State game, a face mask penalty, two pass interference calls, a 26-yard completion, the kind of day that can drag you down.
But Bailey rose up on the Cyclones’ final drive, allowing one pass for just three yards, making sure he made the stop, and covering on two incompletions. He finished the game with 10 tackles and three passes broken up.
“You have to have a short memory, like the Iowa State game, I had some P.I.’s (pass interference) but in the end I made the plays on the last drive,” Bailey said. “It took me a while to grasp that.”
See the problem at cornerback is that you are out there for all to see. They see your big plays and your mistakes and it takes a special approach to deal with both.
“That’s the hard part about it, you have to have that confidence, that swag,” Bailey said. “I had to grow up. Now I have experience. I have to be the leader.”
Doug Belk, the cornerback coach, lived each day with the ups and downs of Bailey and helped him through it all.
“We talk about that all the time, how critical it is for us to do our job and how important it is for us to do it the right way,” he said. “If we don’t, it makes the defense very vulnerable and the better we play it gives coach Gibson confidence in calling the defense and it gives our guys confidence to play man to man or zone, whatever we want, just to keep the offense off balance.”
If one to look beyond great athletic ability, there is one thing that all the great cornerbacks such Adam “Pac Man” Jones, Richard Sherman and Deion Sanders have in common, a great belief in themselves that borders on or even goes beyond cockiness.
“To play the position you have to first believe in yourself and be a confident person, but then you have to be self motivated because at the end of the day, regardless of what defense we’re in you have to be better than the guy across from you,” Belk explained.
“The good ones have that characteristic as a competitor and the skill set to do it. That’s where it starts. it’s all about dominating and winning over the guy in front of you. That’s one of things we try to instill in our guys — play every play, no matter what the score is. If we do our job, it will make it better for everyone else.”
It isn’t easy.
“Some days you don’t want to learn the hard way but it’s all part of growth. I tell him every day he has to push himself. He’s much better fundamentally, much better understanding the scheme. He’s grown as a person and matured,” Belk said.
“He’s been on both sides. He’s made a lot of good plays for us and some of the bad ones. Playing this position, these guys have to understand you are going to get beat at some point. It’s all about how you respond and come back from that.”
If Bailey can step up, secure the starting job and play it as Rasul Douglas did in his second year at the position after coming over from junior college, the WVU defense may show marked improvement this season.