Technical Analysis: Challenges Await For WVU Secondary

WVU’s Defensive Backfield Looks To Take Corrective Measures In Game Two

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It’s round two of our technical analysis segment, and this time around we take a look at the strength of East Carolina versus an initial weakness of West Virginia.

While the Pirates don’t pack their usual arsenal as a program overall, years as an Air Raid-style offense under former head coach Ruffin McNeil have left ECU stocked at wideout. The team ranked first in the AAC and sixth nationally in passing yards last season at 334.7 per game. The issue is that was part of an average of 461 yards overall, meaning the rushing game managed just 132 yards a game to rank 110th nationally.

New head coach Scott Montgomery tried to ride that advantage in the opener against James Madison, and once the coaching staff switched to Duke transfer Thomas Sirk in the second half the offense began to roll. ECU gained 292 yards in the air, with 210 coming on the arm of Sirk’s 21-for-35 performance. The problem was the red zone, where ECU threw a pair of interceptions, negating drives that would have pulled them back into what ended as a lopsided 34-14 defeat.

There’s no question Sink can sling it. He threw for 2,625 yards at Duke in 2015 with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The senior has a fleet of receivers who can challenge WVU on the edge, even with the loss of Zay Jones, the NCAA’s all-time leader in career receptions with 399, including 158 last year. The typical three-wide sets are all seniors in Quay Jonson, Jimmy Williams and Davon Grayson.

West Virginia defensive back Sean Mahone (32) goes high for a pass

The latter is a 6-2, 187-pounder in his fifth collegiate season. Grayson caught a team-best seven passes for 86 yards last week (12.3 ypc), while Williams and Johnson combined for six grabs. On the opposite side, sophomore Deandre Farrier had seven receptions for 68 yards. Well-built and agile, Farrier can work the intermediate and longer routes, and presents match-up challenges.

Remember, too, that East Carolina uses much of the same style of passing game as West Virginia, with mesh concepts and rub routes. It’s designed to maximize open space and stretch defenses horizontally and vertically, and if a team has a quality quarterback along with receivers who have built timing and chemistry, the scheme is difficult to slow, as WVU showed last week in rolling up 592 yards of offense against among the nation’s better secondaries.

So why, exactly, should this concern West Virginia? As clean of a game as the Mountaineers played last week against Virginia Tech, the majority of their busts came on pass defense. Elijah Battle struggled, allowing one long Tech touchdown pass when biting up on a run, and there were a handful of times defensive backs had their eyes in the wrong spot, namely the backfield, and gave up plays downfield. Add in the lack of depth – WVU played four safeties over its three positions and just three corners – and there could be an issue if ECU runs 80-plus plays.

“I think the anxiety and maybe the nervousness of the first game, it takes awhile for guys to calm down and get settled in,” safeties coach Matt Caponi said. “Moving into the second game, you have more playing experience and your feet back under you. From Sunday to this Saturday there are areas we can improve upon. I thought our effort was great, but we have to be able to play smarter and eliminate big plays.

“We gave up three plays that gave Virginia Tech about 120 yards and led to three touchdowns. That’s not good enough defensively and that’s not going to win games. When we had a chance to choke them out and take control of the game, we gave up too many chunk plays. A lot of it is correctable. Do their job, and try not to do too much and we are pretty successful.”

There’s little question West Virginia should make a significant jump. First, East Carolina’s running game isn’t nearly as stout as that of Va Tech, and should be effectively handled by the front six in the odd stack. That, in turn, allows for a greater focus on playing the passing game. Second, WVU’s offense should put up significantly more points, perhaps double the output in the opener at 50-plus. That will serve to lessen pressure on the defense and allow the Mountaineers to consider playing greater numbers, which is a need for both rest for starters and gaining experience for reserves.

“We would love to play more guys on defense,” Caponi said. “I’d like to play more safeties, but the way the game was playing out I felt I needed to go with the guys with more experience. Being able to play at 70-some snaps is pretty good. Better than playing at 90 or 100. I thought the effort they payed with and being dialed in like we were in the first half, we got six three and outs and did some good things. We were able to get off the field and rest.”

Keep an eye on that stat this week. Tech converted just three of 15 on third down, a paltry 20 percent. If West Virginia’s defense is at an 80 percent success rate, this game will be a blowout. Also eye how coordinator Tony Gibson approaches this game. Does he mix in more blitz packages, or try to stay the course in getting the starters, who have little experience themselves, comfortable with the basics?

Does WVU employ more third-and-long packages, if the situation arises? What are the Mountaineers willing to put on tape for Kansas and TCU to scout when Big 12 play begins in late September? And what about Corey Winfield, the Syracuse grad transfer who was supposed to provide badly-needed quality depth at corner. Winfield did not play in the opener, and position coach Doug Belk said the team has “high expectations for him. He played a lot of football at Syracuse, starting 20-plus games. The moment was not too big for him, it was more about his health and getting him ready and not putting him into bad situations. Just making sure he was ready and able to adjust and do what he needs to do for the team to help us be successful, whether on special teams or at corner.”

Winfield, as one might recall, had finger surgery early in fall camp, but was expected back in time for the season. Winfield’s length and athleticism are solid, but he has struggled at times in downfield coverage, and this game could be the perfect time to begin mixing in the veteran.

It’s really all about his progression,” Belk said. “Whenever he is ready we will see more and more of him. For the moment we will see more of the guys that are ready while continuing to build on what we have.”

Check out more comments from safeties coach Matt Caponi below.