MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — While all eyes were on the offense in Saturday’s Gold-Blue Spring football game, the real news of the day was coming from the other side of the ball, in the secondary and specifically among the team’s safeties.
And, in truth, the news really wasn’t revealed that day, but two days prior to the public viewing of Neal Brown’s fourth team, coming from an articulate, educated and spirited press conference of Dontae Wright, the man who is in charge of the Mountaineer safeties.
See, if there was one group on this team that brought a true unknown into the game it was the safeties. This was a group that was being completely rebuilt from the previous season as it lost its four top performers — Sean Mahone, Alonzo Addae, Scottie Young and Jackie Matthews, from a year ago.
Wright wasn’t sure what to expect by the time the spring was over, but he was excited about his group’s progress, ability and attitude, noting that they are “hungry young guys.”
To prove the point of how eager they were, he noted that following Thursday’s final practice before the spring game they had already messaged him.
“Hey, can we come in after dinner tonight to watch this practice before meetings tomorrow?” they messaged.
This, led to an interesting situation for Wright to mull over. As a coach, would he prefer to work with a hungry young group or an experienced group?
“I go back and forth on talent or experience,” he said. “When they are experienced and really smart, their talent is actually better than it really is because their intelligence gets them ahead of things. They see things before the offense is even doing it.
“Talent is just … well, I’m reacting to everything instead of seeing it. Experience is the overlay for them.”
The fact of the matter is, you need talent and you need experience, but that will only get a player or a group of players so far.
Talent is inherited, experience is learning that comes with time, but even that combination may not be the true key to success.
“I like guys who really want to be great,” Wright said, “guys that have the ability to do what I ask them to do. We had experience last year. We’ve got talent this year. They can do everything we ask them to do.”
That means he has to find out what they can and cannot do.
“Last year we weren’t going to ask Sean Mahone and Alonzo Addae and Scottie Young and Jackie Matthews to go line up and play man coverage every time,” Wright said. “It wasn’t their strong suit. So, we played zone stuff and quarters because that’s what they were good at.
“These guys, we’re still trying to figure out what they’re good at, but they have the talent to play man and they have the talent to play zone. Now it’s my job to coach them and get them to where they are supposed to be.”
The thing that will lift beyond what their talent or experience would predict for them is that hunger to succeed.
The safeties and the cornerbacks work together as they try to put the third level of the defense together and other really than Charles Woods there is very little experience among any of them but a number of them have stepped forward.
“(Sophomore) Aubrey Burks has played a little bit. Marcis Floyd (a junior transfer from Murray State) has played a bunch but not at this level. (Redshirt freshman) Davis Mallinger played sparingly but just on special teams last year. Those are the guys with our first group,” Wright said. “They’re not starters — I’m not saying that — but they’re with our first group right now. But I’m really excited about them, because they’re long, they’re athletic, they can run and they’re eager to learn.”
But there are hungry young players pushing them such as Mumu Bin-Wahad and Andrew Wilson-Lamp.
“The Mumus and Wilson-Lamps, they’re hungry. They come and pick my brain. They talk to each other all the time,” Wright said.
“The one thing about this group of DBs is they are really, really close. Even though they haven’t been around each other for a long time, for some odd reason they really gel together and communicate well. It’s not about egos and who makes this play. No, it’s them doing their job. If it comes to me, it comes to me because we are doing our job in sync.”
Wright made repeated use of the word “gel” in describing what has been happening.
It was, probably, the most important observation he made.
“In my opinion, the most important thing in all of sports is gelling in the locker room,” he said. “The chemistry in the locker room, if it is good, then you have a chance to be special. If it is average or bad, you have a chance to do nothing.
“That’s just my opinion. I talk to my guys and tell them it’s not about you all. It’s not about an individual. It’s about a team and buying into each other because when the team wins, everybody wins. If you want to get to the NFL, the best procedure to get to the league is off a 10-win team. It’s awfully hard to get there off a five-win team
“Can you still do it? You dadgum can, but when you are a 10-win team people come around more. There are more eyes on you.”
Wright believes when the team gels, when everyone is focused on winning games, not on individual success, it opens the door to the future.
“If you make it about us, then we all have a chance. If you make it about you, good luck to you,” he said. “That is what I’m excited about the most. These guys are growing together. They hang out together outside the stadium.
Did we hang outside the locker room the last two, three years? Yeah, but it wasn’t a pack of 30 or 40 of them. It was a five or six-person clique. When you get cliques, you start to get separation. They enjoy each other.”
It’s a start on building a foundation that can hold up through good times and bad times, and on building experience
“Can I say we’re going to have a special team? No. I can’t say that at all,” Wright said. “But I can say that the locker room is growing to the point we will give ourselves a chance. I can.”