Today in our series on the biggest questions West Virginia’s football team faces in 2020, we look at the best and worst-case scenarios for the cornerback position.
West Virginia’s defense showed significant improvement over the course of 12 games last season. After allowing an average of 33.4 points per game through the first seven contests of 2019, WVU cut that down to 22.4 points per game in its final five outings. In large part because of that defensive improvement, the Mountaineers were able to snap a five-game mid-season losing streak and win two of their final three games to finish 5-7.
Led by senior cornerbacks Keith Washington and Hakeem Bailey, West Virginia’s pass defense was pretty salty all year, allowing 239.9 yards per game through the air, which was sixth best in the Big 12. It did give up 363 passing yards to Oklahoma and 354 to Texas Tech, but it allowed none of its other 10 foes to throw for more than 300.
WVU’s starting corners have graduated, though, so how will their replacements perform?
Rebuild or reload at cornerback? The experience level at cornerback for West Virginia from last year to this year is as day is to night.
Bailey played in 35 games in his three seasons with the Mountaineers, starting 21 of them, including 11 last year. Washington had 22 games of experience in his two seasons at WVU, including 17 as a starter. Between them, Bailey and Washington, who each were junior college transfers, started 21 of a possible 24 games at the two corners last season, as only a leg injury (resulting in two games missed by Washington) and a first-half suspension for targeting (Bailey) kept them out of the starting lineup.
As it tries to replace that experienced pair, West Virginia has just one cornerback who has ever started at game at WVU (Nicktroy Fortune, who got two starts as a true freshman last year in place of Washington). The only other one who has even participated in a FBS football game is Tae Mayo, who played one game last year as a true freshman.
Best-case scenario – Experience is always a big benefit, but talent usually is the trump card, and it appears the Mountaineers do have talent at the cornerback position, even if they have precious little D-I experience.
Fortune got his feet wet last season, and Mayo dipped his toe in the water as well. Both held up well enough as true freshmen to lead you to believe that better things are to come for each.
Add to the mix junior college transfers Dreshun Miller and Jackie Matthews, as well as a new pair of true freshmen in Daryl Porter and David Vincent-Okoli, and if nothing else, WVU should have more depth at cornerback than it did last year, when it really only played with three corners – Bailey, Washington and Fortune.
This year’s group seems to have talent, though admittedly only time will tell for certain. If, out of the six cornerbacks who appear to be at the top end of the current depth chart, three – or better yet four – can provide quality play, then West Virginia should be in pretty good shape at this position.
You have to like the odds that out of six, WVU can find at least three good ones.
Worst-case scenario – Talent is always a concern when playing the cornerback position because against today’s spread passing attacks, it’s nearly impossible to hide a weak link.
But on top of talent – which WVU likely has – cornerbacks also need loads of confidence. And in a league like the Big 12, it’s awfully easy for a corner to quickly lose his mental fortitude.
In their second game of the 2020 season, the Mountaineers will try to defend one of the best wide receivers in the country in Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace. Because the Cowboys also enjoy a potent running attack led by Heisman Trophy contender Chuba Hubbard, there will be little help available for Miller, Fortune or whoever is matched up on Wallace. A couple of bad moments in Stillwater could result in a loss of confidence for not only a game but potentially even the whole season.
A corner who doubts himself is a liability, and inexperienced cornerbacks who don’t have previous success to draw upon can lose their confidence in a hurry.
West Virginia’s defense finished the 2019 campaign with some nice performances, but reloading at cornerback is a must if that unit is going to match last year’s play during its strong closing stretch.
In a league like the Big 12, which features plenty of NFL-level talent at wide receiver and quarterback, a weakness at corner will immediately be exploited.
Previously in Best Case\Worst Case