Four Defensive Surprises for WVU

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Four Defensive Surprises for WVU

Fall camp is well underway. Indeed, the West Virginia Mountaineers find themselves three weeks shy of the season opener. According to the coaching staff, the OTAs this Summer helped the team hit the ground running. While OTAs, according to Head Coach Neal Brown, are not designed to work for the team at full speed, they do help the team–especially incoming freshmen and transfers–learn “alignment and assignment.” Each member of the staff, and many of the players, have repeated these two words ad nauseam during interviews this month. As a result, the staff possesses a better feel for their 2022 rosters’ strengths and weaknesses. Now, the staff is working on fixing the little things. In turn, this gives us a better feel for what the 2022 version of the Mountaineers may offer. As a result, we present our four defensive surprises for WVU in 2022 with greater confidence than in years past.

The Secondary Will be Much Better Than Expected

For the first of our four defensive surprises for WVU, we throw this out. The secondary will be much better than expected. Indeed, we believe the secondary will offer the defense some of the best production of the Brown era. We know what we predict here. The 2020 unit finished first in the nation in terms of passing yards allowed. This unit may not produce fewer yards, but it will not be far off.

We keep hearing an important theme from the coaching staff. Defensive backs coach ShaDon Brown said it best. “The DNA of West Virginia is blue collar: guys that are underdog mentality,” he said last week. Coach Brown expounded when asked what he looked for in the transfers the team added since 2021: “is he coming here with a purpose?”

One of the better examples of this mentality that he gave was Jasir Cox. “There’s a reason why you win national championships,” Brown said, and “it’s not by accident.” Cox saw his older brother transfer to LSU and translate that into a mid-round NFL draft selection. Jasir has the same dreams. Importantly, he arrived in Morgantown with the work ethic that a national champion like North Dakota State produces. That said, all of the transfers come to West Virginia with a chip on their shoulders.

This includes Wes McCormick and Rashad Ajayi. Indeed, the theme he harped on was that each of these guys has that blue-collar mentality. Nothing has been handed to them, and they do not expect that treatment here. The adversity should produce sharp replacements. The unit looks longer and faster, and that is also by design.

Ultimately, we do not know who will seize a couple of the starting spots still considered open in the secondary. We are certain, however, that whoever seizes the spots will offer much to the unit.

Charles Woods Will be the Best Cornerback in the Big XII

One of the reasons we think the secondary will be so much better than fans expect is returning cornerback Charles Woods. ShaDon Brown did not hold punches when asked about Woods. “Charles Woods is the best corner in the Big XII.” Not that the concept of “playing fast” is new or groundbreaking, but the staff has been laser-focused on getting the players to think less and play faster. About Woods, Brown said his mentality is simple: “Knowledge equals confidence which means playing fast.” With Woods, simply, Brown added, “he’s got it.” In terms of growth, Brown added that Woods uses that knowledge to help him coach up the others in the locker room.

This is good because Woods’ example and precedent stand as the main reason for our first prediction. Like Woods, who came from an FCS school after outstanding production at level, multiple transfers, including Cox and Marcis Floyd, transferred up from FCS this offseason. Cox and Floyd (and Ajayi and McCormick, too) are “cut from the same cloth.” Each of these players remains hungry. Woods sets an example.

As for the statistics, they may just so happen to support Brown’s bold statement about Woods. According to PFF, Woods did just about everything well. In zone coverage, he offered the highest grade among all cornerbacks in the country last season, with a score of 90.3 (which is elite). Auburn’s Roger McCreary finished second.

PFF also offers another impressive statistic about Woods. Among all Big XII cornerbacks, Woods allowed the lowest passer rating, by a wide margin. He allowed a passer rating of 22.1. The next lowest came against Jalen Pitre, who allowed a rating of 55.2. This is, well, good. Woods was also the only Big XII cornerback to eclipse an 80 in coverage rating last season.

Lee Kpogba Will be Pretty Good, Too

Mountaineer fans received a few surprises after the 2021 season ended. Two of those surprises came from the same source. First, Josh Chandler-Semedo, the team’s leading tackler last season, announced his intention to return for a final season of eligibility in 2022. Several weeks later, however, Chandler-Semedo announced that he would use that final season elsewhere.

We first heard rumors that this may happen about a week before Chandler-Semedo. Indeed, these rumors were accompanied by a strange sentiment. Locker room “insiders,” said that Lee Kpogba emerged as a vocal leader for the team in Winter workouts. That role was reserved for Chandler-Semedo in 2021, so this seemed a bit, well, odd. Sure enough, Chandler-Semedo entered the transfer portal several days later.

While it also seems odd to say a team will not miss its leading tackler from a season ago, we feel fairly confident saying that. Kpogba looks very much like an improvement at Mike linebacker. You cannot mention his name to the staff without hearing the words “quarterback of the defense” promptly. Kpogba offers a bit more range at linebacker, and he will find plenty of ways to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

This Defensive Line Is the Deepest WVU Has Had in Years

For the final of our four defensive surprises for WVU in 2022, we predict that the defensive line will feature the most depth the Mountaineers have had in years. When we think about the defensive line, some think about the sudden departure of Akheem Mesidor. We say this without any hesitation: Mesidor represents the biggest loss from the 2021 version of West Virginia. How will WVU make up for this lost production? It probably will not be with a single player. Instead, defensive line coach Andrew Jackson finds himself in an unusual position. He possesses an abundance of riches. Thus, the production will probably come from a combination of players.

Jackson lamented during his most recent interview that the competition among the individuals in his position room keeps him “up at night because I have to figure out how to get all these guys in the game.” Jackson tells us that he has at least nine, and possibly ten, different players who can play immediately.

Veterans like Dante Stills, Taijh Alston, and Jordan Jefferson almost certainly represent the first team unit. That said, Jackson has been looking at different rotations to figure out who plays well with each other. He identifies Stills as one of four “swiss army knives” in the room. Asani Redwood–who has grown to a stout 290 pounds without sacrificing speed–Zeiqui Lawton, and Sean Martin represent the other three.

What Jackson may consider a tough decision, fans should consider a luxury. The depth will pay dividends in the final quarter of close games. It will also pay dividends years in the future as some of the true freshman (like Redwood) and redshirt freshman (like Lawton) called out by Jackson should have several seasons left in Morgantown to contribute. Ideally, Jackson says he will play his starters 60% of the time and split the remaining 40% evenly between his second and third-string contributors. This should offer plenty of snaps to go around, which only helps in the future.