West Virginia Football’s Biggest Questions In 2019: No. 2 – Safeties
(Editor’s Note – In our series of stories over the next few weeks, we’re going to take a look at each of West Virginia’s top 10 question marks heading into the 2019 football season. After that, we’ll also look at what we consider to be the top 10 strengths of Neal Brown’s first Mountaineer squad.)
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Although depth may be thin at some other positions on defense, the majority of those issues – not to mention starting roles – are evident at the safety positions for West Virginia in 2019. The departure of several players, which was not unexpected according to head coach Neal Brown, has led to some shuffling of positions, and has also set the stage for a number of battles during fall camp.
Starting in the back end at free safety, the first of those moves was highlighted recently in the form of Dante Bonamico, who is now listed as the first-teamer at free safety, according to the depth chart in West Virginia’s football media guide. Bonamico, who played in all 12 games last year in a backup role, does have some experience in plays from scrimmage, but the majority of his work has come on special teams. He compiled 10 tackles a year ago.
Behind, or perhaps more correctly still competing, with Bonamico are junior Jake Long and true freshman Kerry Martin. Long is coming off a wrist injury that required surgery and kept him out of the entire 2018 season, and he’s also a newcomer to the position, having played cornerback in his two previous active seasons at WVU. Martin, a January enrollee in the Class of 2019, has drawn some notice for his play, but the overriding takeaway here is that the Mountaineers will be depending on players who haven’t been free safeties in their time at West Virginia.
The cat safety, which requires a variety of skills, received a personnel infusion in the form of Josh Norwood, who moved over from cornerback to help bolster this spot. This isn’t a big change or a huge surprise, as Norwood was a candidate for both cornerback and safety upon his arrival at West Virginia a year ago before settling at the former, where he earned third-team all-conference honors from one publication in 2018. However, with the exodus at safety, Norwood is needed even more to fill those gaps than he is at corner, even though the proven talent level there is also thin.
Perhaps owing to the recent move, Norwood is listed as the backup behind Sean Mahone, but that will be a battle that will likely continue through fall camp. Mahone, like Long, has limited playing experience from scrimmage, and he was also a cornerback previously, having moved to the cat safety position during the spring.
The third safety position, the spear, also has a moved player heading the chart, but his experience is more than all the other safeties combined outside of Norwood. JoVanni Stewart, who played linebacker last year, is now at the hybrid spot that is very suited to his skills, so there are fewer concerns as to his ability to handle the load. Behind him is redshirt freshman Kwantel Raines, who played in the Baylor game in 2018, but then, like several other players, was apparently forgotten by the previous head coach. Raines also got looks at free safety, and he could be a player that fills more than one backup role in 2019 if need be.
Another name to watch is Noah Guzman, a junior college graduate from Cerritos College, who brings a reputation of aggressive play. With so few players at the three positions, there is definitely playing time available, both from scrimmage and on special teams, for mobile defenders.
Given the overlapping skill sets at the safety spots, it won’t be a surprise to see more movement between the free, cat and spear spots in 2019. It is still early days in terms of figuring out where each player fits best, and how he can best contribute to building a solid defense for WVU. The overriding theme, one of newness in terms of the defensive scheme as well as players in new positions, will be a stiff challenge, especially in the early part of the season. Like many positions on the team, the play of the safeties will likely improve steadily as the season wears on, so weathering the storm of newness and unfamiliarity early is an important key.
Previously In The Series