Previewing West Virginia’s Secondary
About a month ago, we started our Spring preview series by looking at the team’s focus heading into camp. Then, we reviewed our offensive position groups from the offensive line to the pass catchers. After that, we shifted our focus to the defense, where we reviewed the defensive line and the linebackers. Now, we move on to our final Spring positional preview in advance of the Spring game on April 24. Here, we are previewing West Virginia’s secondary.
Depleted Through The Transfer Portal
West Virginia heard good news through the transfer portal at two positions of need, gaining blue-chip All-Conference performer Doug Nester and blue-chip linebacker Lance Dixon. However, while the portal giveth in some areas, it taketh away in others. Nowhere has that been more apparent over the past several seasons than the secondary. Looking back at the roster two years ago at players who would still have eligibility is perhaps a futile endeavor. But we will do it anyway.
Over the last three seasons, the Mountaineers lost safeties Tykee Smith and Kwantel Raines. They also lost cornerbacks Dreshun Miller, Kenny Robinson, Derrek Pitts, Tae Mayo, and David Vincent-Okoli. Absent the losses to the transfer market, we would be having a different conversation about the Mountaineers’ secondary. All-Conference talent with depth would be a given.
Taking Stock Of The Remaining Secondary Personnel
Nonetheless, those faces now represent former Mountaineers, and Head Coach Neal Brown must move forward with the players who return. Many of those players, of course, have performed quite well in their time here (and elsewhere), and others will prove their value for the first time this season. But to say depth is lacking understates the problem.
This Spring, for example, West Virginia rolls with just four scholarship cornerbacks, just enough for a two-deep. More, the Mountaineers’ roster features just five scholarship safeties, one shy of a two-deep in a 4-2-5 defense. With Brown primarily using three safeties in the scheme, they need more bodies. Certainly, a handful of walk-ons will step up and fill out the ranks. Two additional safeties join the fray over the Summer in freshmen Aubrey Burks and Saint McLeod.
The standout returnees in the secondary are now household names to fans. Nicktroy Fortune has accumulated over 850 snaps over his two seasons in Morgantown. He will start as one of the two cornerbacks. Fortune provides significant veteran leadership and talent. At safety, West Virginia returns Alonzo Addae, Sean Mahone, Arizona transfer Scottie Young, and Kerry Martin.
Addae turned in a standout season in 2020, and he looks to improve on that. Mahone has over 1,300 snaps in the secondary, and his leadership will prove invaluable. Young received his eligibility ruling late in the season, so he played sparingly last year. He is, however, a fifth-year senior with plenty of skills. Indeed, Brown told media last week that Young “looks a lot like Tykee (Smith) out there.” The statement is not gratuitous either. Young handled his role at Arizona superbly and proved capable in the Liberty Bowl last season.
Who Will Emerge To Shore Up The Secondary?
As we discussed in our previous defensive preview articles, Brown centers on the theme that the best eleven players will be on the field as often as possible. In previewing West Virginia’s secondary, we continue to explore that theme. Brown’s focus might lead to some different looks defensively.
West Virginia has the returning personnel with starting experience to field the three safeties and even a dime safety where needed. But to reduce flight time, Brown could also roll out plenty of two-safety looks where a linebacker plays a hybrid role. Exree Loe and Jairo Faverus come to mind here since both started their careers playing safety.
We have also written that Brown and his staff will rotate players at different positions within their groups to maximize versatility. He has been clear about doing so with his safeties. As a result, he has been rotating each of his safeties across all three roles. Given the lack of depth, this will prove necessary considering a single injury could otherwise decimate production out of the secondary. True freshman Davis Mallinger will no doubt benefit from this training heading into Fall.
The Mountaineers also have Fortune penciled in as one of the two starting cornerbacks. That leaves Jackie Matthews, Daryl Porter, and true freshman Andrew Wilson-Lamp to compete for the starting spot opposite Fortune. Brown has been high on both Matthews and Porter saying they are ready to take the next step in their progression. We will see this spirited fight take shape during the Spring game this weekend. That said, we likely will not have a clear-cut answer until the middle of Fall camp.
In the meantime, of the four to five scholarships Brown has left to give in this class, we would anticipate him looking hard to use at least two of them in the secondary. Those players would surely have immediate eligibility given the NCAA’s recent approval of its one-time transfer exception. We also would not be surprised to see one or more walk-ons earning scholarships with Naim Muhammad being the most likely.