As the coach of the position “that should have the best athletes on the field,” Mountaineer assistant Dontae Wright believes safeties should not only be capable of playing multiple positions on the defense, but should also be the foundation of special teams. Now in his second year at WVU, the enthusiastic Wright has experience coaching from the front of the defense to the back, giving him an overall perspective that extends beyond his decade-plus in the profession.
“All safeties should be on every special team. I talk about that all the time,” said Wright, who was a linebacker at Miami (Ohio) from 2003-06 before getting into the coaching game. “They should be the best athletes on the field because they’ve got to go down there and bang with the big boys at times and they’ve got to run with the wideouts. That’s what special teams is, being able to be physical and being able to run.”
The only limitation in that arena is with snap counts.
“You know Sean (Mahone) and Scottie (Young) and Alonzo (Addae) will all be on special teams. They’ll be on two of them, because we won’t let them start on more than that because they are starters on defense. But our safeties and linebacker have to be the core of your special teams.”
Those same attributes of speed and physicality are in play at the free and cat safety positions, which Wright has responsibility for, and also at the spear, which is the hybrid safety/cornerback spot in the Mountaineer defense. That latter position is coached directly by ShaDon Brown, who also has the corners, but just as there’s a great deal of crossover on the field between free, cat and spear, so too is there crossover in coaching and getting all of them working together.
“The cat and the free, there really is no difference,” said Wright when asked about the difference between the three positions as they are currently used in the Mountaineer defense. “They have a couple of different calls, but they have exactly the same technique, so [those two positions] are the easiest to switch back and forth between. The spear is the one that’s a little different, because he’s a hybrid corner-safety guy, and he has to play a little bit of coverage out there on the number twos (slot receivers). That’s the harder one to switch.”
West Virginia has veterans of different stripes at all three spots. Addae and Mahone are returning starters at the free and cat. Scottie Young, who was on WVU’s scout team last fall before attaining eligibility to play in the Liberty Bowl win over Army, brings plenty of playing experience from Arizona, and the expectation is he can have the same sort of impact at spear that Tony Fields did at linebacker last year.
“The biggest impression (of the spring) is Scottie Young playing the spear position and also learning the free safety position. He’s a terrific football player, has great instincts and is one of the leaders on our defense. He’s had a really, really good spring,” Wright shared.
Along with skill improvement and development, the search for depth, either with dedicated second teamers or crossover training, has been a point of emphasis so far in 2021. Wright is seeing some progress on both fronts, although another transfer, along with the addition of three freshmen to the roster, could provide even more help.
“Right now the one who can play all three (positions) is Alonzo Addae. He’s one of the smarter players I’ve ever been around, and he understands not just what his positions are doing, but he knows where the will (linebacker) is supposed to be, and where the mike is supposed to be, and all the positions around him. (Sean) Mahone can play both safeties. I’d feel comfortable putting KJ Martin at all three of them,” Wright explained.
Martin, who sat out last year due to health concerns, has boosted the depth at safety since getting back on the field this spring.
“K.J. has really come on, and he’s had a great opportunity because Sean Mahone has missed some practice. We’ll have no drop-off with K.J.,” Wright emphasized. “It took him six or seven practices to knock the rust off fully, and the biggest adjustment for him was the live tackling. When you don’t tackle for a long time it becomes hard to do, but I think he’s back to full speed now. He’ll be our third safety in the game.”
Walk-ons Naim Muhammad, who showed a knack for blocking kicks on the scout team last year, and Avery Wilcox, who made great gains in the winter strength program, will also compete for multiple positions on special teams.
Then there are newcomers in the Class of 2021, one of whom enrolled early, is practicing this spring, and showing a good bit of promise.
“We’re really excited about our young guy Davis Mallinger,” Wright said. “He didn’t play a lot of defense last year (in high school) but he is going to be a great football player. If he continues to improve he’ll be our fourth guy. I think he is going to be the one that is going to surprise on special teams, I really do, because on special teams you don’t have to think as much, and as a freshman, he doesn’t know what he’s doing and he’s swimming a little bit, but he can run. The kid can flat-out run and he’s physical and he’s not scared of contact. I think he’s going to help us in the return game as a kickoff returner and a punt returner potentially and he’ll help us on kickoff and being a gunner on the punt team.”
Looking ahead to the fall, WVU will welcome freshman signees Aubrey Burks and Saint McLeod to the safety room, and the coaching staff believes that they could also help early on special teams.
“It’s tough, but they get some time in the OTAs that we have in the summer now,” Wright said of getting early help from freshmen. “They are going to have to be ready to go on special teams. I feel good about where our depth is headed.”