With hopes of a college football season in 2020 strengthening, we continue our look at at an anticipated WVU football depth chart with analysis of the safety positions.
The three safeties who were starting for West Virginia at the end of last season – Tykee Smith at spear, Sean Mahone at cat and K.J. Martin at free – all return.
Josh Norwood, who had been WVU’s starting free safety until a late season injury, is the only significant graduation loss from the backend of the Mountaineer defense. Still, that unit needs to develop depth as it looks to 2020 and beyond.
Here is how we view the safety rotation.
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Anticipated starters – Spear Tykee Smith (Soph.), CS Sean Mahone (Sr.), FS K.J. Martin (Soph.)
Certainly nothing is given and everything is earned when it comes to spots on the depth chart, but the three safeties who ended last season as starters are the odds-on favorites to beginning this one as starters as well.
Sean Mahone was the only WVU defensive player to start all 12 games in 2019, and he also wound up as the team’s leading tackler with 80 stops, including five for lost yardage and two sacks. A senior leader this year, the 5-foot-11, 204-pounder from Liberty Township, Ohio, is again pretty much cemented as the cat safety position.
Tykee Smith and K.J. Martin were each true freshmen last season, but both eventually worked their way into starting role. Smith moved in with West Virginia’s first team four games into the season, and the 5-foot-10, 202-pounder from Philadelphia stayed there the rest of the way. He finished with 53 tackles and two interceptions, and was named a FWAA freshman All-American at year’s end.
It took a little longer for Martin to earn his first start, but the 6-1, 198-pound Charleston, West Virginia, native got increasingly more game action as the season went along until eventually starting three of the last four games. He had 50 tackles and five pass break ups in all.
Those three are more than likely going to be the Mountaineers’ starters again this year, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have competition.
Likely top backups – Spear Dante Bonamico (Sr.), CS Noah Guzman (Jr.), FS Jake Long (Sr.)
Dante Bonamico, Noah Guzman and Jake Long are the most experienced players WVU has at the three safety positions, outside the starting trio.
Bonamico came to the Mountaineers as a walk-on after a stellar high school career at Bridgeport (W.Va.). Undersized (5-8, 188 lbs.) but aggressive, he worked his way into a prominent special teams role, playing 30 games with 23 tackles over the past three years. Last season he got more defensive snaps as the backup spear, and he figures to again hold that role this year.
A junior college transfer, Noah Guzman didn’t sigh with WVU until the summer of 2019, and it took the 5-foot-11, 202-pounder native of La Puente, California, a little while to work his way into the Mountaineer lineup. He only played in one of West Virginia’s first four games, but then saw consistent action after that. He even started against Baylor when WVU employed a four-safety alignment, and he responded with a team-best 12 tackles in Waco.
Jake Long has often been beset with injuries during his West Virginia career, and thus has played in just 18 games over the previous four years in which he’s accumulated seven tackles. Most of his game action has been on special teams, but if healthy, he figures to backup Martin at free safety this season, and maybe even compete with him for the starting job.
Because the Mountaineers’ defensive alignment uses at least three safeties on almost every play – and occasionally four – depth at these three positions is critical. Last year 11 different safeties for WVU saw playing time and six of them started at one point or another, so obviously West Virginia needs to develop further depth at these three positions beyond the two-deep listed above.
Other key returnees – Osman Kamara (Sr.), Jordan Dempsey (RFr.), Jayvon Thrift (RFr.), Nick Yoho (RFr.)
Osman Kamara came to WVU initially as a walk-on from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and quickly developed into a reliable special teams player. After redshirting as a true freshman in 2016, he’s seen action in every game since, accumulating a total of seven tackles. This year he’ll look to cap his collegiate career with more defensive opportunities, as the 5-foot-10, 203-pound fifth-year senior can play either free or cat safety.
Kamara and Bonamico are just a couple of the safeties who arrived at WVU as walk-ons and eventually became key cogs. Now another trio of youngster is trying to follow that walk-on path in Jordan Dempsey, Jayvon Thrift and Nick Yoho. None of the three saw game action last year as true freshmen, but the Mountaineers would greatly benefit if one or two of them could develop into solid special teams players this year who are also capable of providing some backup help at the safety spots if the need arises.
Newcomers who could see game action this season – Daryl Porter (Fr.), Scottie Young (Sr., transfer from Arizona)
If some of WVU’s redshirt freshmen walk-ons aren’t capable of providing quality help on special teams and as reserves at safety, the Mountaineers will likely have to look to newcomers. The problem is there aren’t many.
Daryl Porter will be a true freshman who is coming off a fine career at American Heritage High in Plantation, Florida. Porter spent most of his high school days at cornerback, so he’ll have to adapt to a safety role, where he’s projected to play for WVU. Maybe even more of a challenge in terms of seeing immediate playing time is the fact that Porter is 5-foot-11 and just 175 pounds. While Porter shows toughness and a willingness to tackle, he’s likely going to need more strength and girth to thrive at safety at the college level.
Scottie Young would certainly appear to be capable of providing immediate safety help at West Virginia, but his eligibility is still in question. A three-year starter at Arizona, the 5-foot-11, 201-pound Young announce via Twitter last month that he was transferring from UA to WVU. In a subsequent interview with Kevin Kinder of BlueGoldNews.com, Young noted that he had not yet graduated from Arizona (he never redshirted, so he had spent just three years in Tucson,) and thus he would need a waiver from the NCAA to be able to play at the Division I level this coming season. Otherwise he would have to sit out a year as a traditional transfer and then be eligible at his new school in 2021. Thus while Young, who is a native of San Diego, could potentially help West Virginia this coming season, that’s not yet a definite.
The Mountaineers also have some cornerbacks, particularly Tacorey Turner, Alonzo Addae, Jairo Faverus and Jackie Matthews, who appear to have the physical tools to play safety, so if WVU needs further help at any of those three positions, it could turn to a couple of those current corners and move them over to safety.
Previously In The Series