Technically Speaking: Corner-Stones Of Defense Must Now Sink Or Swim

WVU Corners Are What To Watch This Weekend

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It’s been a prime topic of conversation as West Virginia readies for its Big 12 opener at Kansas: Facing a rejuvenated passing attack, can the Mountaineer corners find some juice of their own?

It isn’t as though KU is Oklahoma State or Texas Tech, or even TCU as an offense overall. But the Jayhawks now have a serviceable passer in Peyton Bender, a reliable receiver in Steven Sims, an ultra-dependable tight end in the 6-foot-5, 245 pound Ben Johnson and a 6-2 threat in Jeremiah Booker who is averaging 14.7 yards peer catch. The bottom line: They’re better than Delaware State, might rival East Carolina, and won’t run it 44 times like WVU’s last opponent did.

That means challenges for the secondary. And while the safeties have held up reasonably, and should regain their full strength with the return of Toyous Avery (which also keeps Marvin Gross as  back-up and not sliding out of position to play the vacated bandit slot), the corners have been middling at best thus far. We’ve gone over all this, the busts versus all three foes, the relegation of Elijah Battle to back-up, the downgrade of Corey Winfield from expected starter to master of the zone, but not the man style of coverage.

Corners coach Doug Belk is saying the right things, and doing so in a calm, controlled manner: West Virginia is making strides – and not just those chasing down open receivers. The fundamentals are more refined, the competition level for the starting spots has risen, the sideline adjustments have come to fruition more quickly, and the experience levels across the board are better.

The true freshman defensive back tandem of Kenny Robinson (#2) and Derrek Pitts

The starters are locked in: Kenny Robinson and Mike Daniels will be on the field as much as possible. Robinson’s a young buck who has shown some ability, but remains raw at corner. Daniels is a vet who is playing at a solid level – but understands the need to steadily advance himself to begin to, as he says, “pop off the film.”

But here’s where it gets iffy. Notice Belk, below, note that he’s as comfortable with the next two up as he is the starters. Shenanigans. That cannot be the case, though it’s properly toeing the company line. The problem for the Mountaineers is a lack of proven playmakers first, and quality depth second. We find out more this weekend, when Daniels and Robinson will likely see 40-plus passes.

What coordinator Tony Gibson wants is for the two to play with confidence, to show tenacity in attacking not only the wideout on press coverage, but the ball in the air and the opposing bodies when battling for route position. Be assignment sound, but showcase courage and an edge. Thus far, that’s been lacking. WVU has been in position – and Battle was a prime example early on – but haven’t attacked the ball in the air. They’ve been outfought, out-toughed. That’s a concern.

In Hakeem Bailey’s case, there’s some footwork and ability to flip hips that’s an issue. Winfield, as noted, hadn’t played much man and might be a season-long adjustment who never pans out. Battle hasn’t won the 50-50 balls. That leaves Daniels and the upstart to counter Kansas this weekend.

What KU has done well in the pass game is win individual battles outside that have allowed Bender to throw deep balls down the sideline and into the corners of the end zones. The routes aren’t incredible, but the Jayhawks have better receiver athletes than in the past – similar to ECU – and are winning fade route battles. Booker hit Ohio U for a score last week with it (and that was from inside the one-yard line) and coordinator Doug Meacham is using them far more than in the past.

Bender also hangs in the pocket better than the likes of Montell Cozart and some other more mobile passers. This offense will look a lot like West Virginia, Texas Tech and Oklahoma. It’ll employ offset two back alignments, go four and five wide, and generally take whatever WVU offers. The timing is also getting better as the season progresses, and Meacham, like Jake Spavital, won’t hesitate to utilize misdirection.

All the above will force Daniels and Robinson to stick with routes longer, and maintain their fundamentals and coverage angle to cut down on giving up the inside or outside pending where the Mountaineers are leveraging. This is a test, though KU lacks a true burner over the top and won’t be the most crisp at offensive operation, with several throws off target despite the recent improvement. Bender also has a tendency to force offbalance passes, thinking his pure arm strength can make up for proper footwork and stepping into the throws. It can’t, as his Big 12-worst five interceptions show. Expect another from West Virginia this week.

In all, it’s an ideal game and time for the next level of play now that WVU has settled on its starters. It’s not the blistering efficiency of OSU or Oklahoma, but it’s a nice next rung for the corners, who can use this as a step going into the open week prior to TCU. Check out Belk’s take on the corner situation, below, and what he wants to see on Saturday.