MORGANTOWN - When West Virginia’s defense jogs onto the field for the first time in the 2013 season Saturday, it’s likely that two defensive backs will be 5-foot-10 and 5-11 and two others will be 6-0 and 6-1.
That’s not unusual.
Yet the Mountaineers are switching things, at least relative to their recent past, and have the smaller players at safety and the taller ones at cornerback.
Sophomore Karl Joseph, who last year led the team in tackles as a true freshman, is the shortest of the group, and senior Darwin Cook, almost unquestionably the most opportune player on defense when healthy, stands an inch taller to Joseph’s side.
WVU is unveiling a fleet of tall cornerbacks for the season opener against William & Mary, beginning with juniors Travis Bell and smaller-by-an-inch Ishmael Banks.
Kickoff is noon on Fox Sports 1.
“You’re trying to minimize the distance between you and the next offender,” cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell said. “The taller, longer, rangier kids who have the same skill set as the smaller kids, which is great athletic ability, good lateral quickness, good top-end speed, why not have them at cornerback?”
Bell is a converted safety who practiced once at cornerback in the spring before playing there in the Gold-Blue game and finding a permanent home.
Banks has played some safety in his career, but has surged since he was planted at cornerback early last season.
Daryl Worley wasn’t recruited as a cornerback, either. The true freshman, who is 6-2 and 195 pounds, played linebacker and safety in high school, but was slotted at cornerback upon arriving at WVU. He backs up Banks.
He is WVU’s new way of thinking in the secondary, a year after many Big 12 teams had their receivers use height and reach to outplay cornerbacks for balls while the cornerbacks weren’t strong or long enough to get in the way and stay in the way of certain routes and passes.
It’s WVU’s belief that longer defensive backs can use their presence to discourage some throws and defend many others. Bigger bodies are harder to move off the line of scrimmage or during a route.
“I think nowadays you’ve got to get corners who are physical, long and rangy and can defend these 6-3, 6-4 receivers day in and day out, because that’s the nature of the beast now,” defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “You’ve got to get as many kids in the program who are long, rangy, can make plays in space and can get the receiver on the ground.”
Baylor’s Terrance Williams obliterated WVU’s secondary last season with 17 receptions for 317 yards and two touchdowns. He was 6-2 and 205 pounds. Kansas State’ 6-1, 235-pound Chris Harper caught six passes for 96 yards and a touchdown. Oklahoma’s 6-3, 210-pound Justin Brown caught six passes for 112 yards. TCU’s 6-0, 200-pound Josh Boyce caught six passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
Not everyone is so big, but teams were nevertheless successful against the Mountaineers because they made use of the way the game is played today. WVU hopes it can counter that with size.
“Blocking them is a lot tougher because they’re obviously a lot bigger,” said WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who went through spring and preseason practices against the new idea. “A lot of football is being played on the perimeter right now. A lot of screens are being thrown out there. That’s why blocking is so crucial.
“The bigger the corners are, like the ones that we’re playing with at times, they can take away that perimeter game. If defenders can take away that perimeter game, it limits a lot of stuff you can do and then you’ve got to go more down the field, which is when pass rush and things like that take over.”
The conversation at WVU isn’t limited to the cornerbacks, though. Cook and Joseph have the top spots, but WVU is recruiting bigger safeties, too. Sophomore K.J. Dillon is 6-1 and 205 pounds and is part of pass defense packages that move him to a nickel back position.
He won state track championships in different events in high school, but also played running back and receiver and led the team in receiving as a senior.
“If you can’t drop a safety down to cover a slot receiver in our league, they you’re in trouble,” safeties coach Tony Gibson said. “People are going to figure out if you bring in four corners in the game, that means you’re in some kind of a man coverage. What we have to do is find guys who have the ability to blitz, to cover and to tackle people at that spot.”
Redshirt freshman Jarrod Harper was a talented running back his senior year of high school. He’s 6-1 and 215 pounds. Freshmen Jeremy Tyler is 6-1 and 195 pounds and played some quarterback in high school. Freshman Malik Greaves is 6-2 and 205 pounds. He played basketball and ran track in high school and has run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds.
Then there’s Isaac McDonald, who wasn’t approved by the NCAA Eligibility Center until the end of camp. He’s 6-5 and 205 pounds and he played receiver in high school.
Each fits the plan Patterson has for his safeties in physical appearance and performance. He won’t play quarters coverage with his safeties deep on their part of the field. He instead wants them to be aggressive against the run and the pass.
It helps if they can bring a little extra height and weight.
“Those guys are the ones making tackles a lot of the time,” Dawson said. “If everyone does his job and the ball cuts back to the open side, everyone else on defense to defeat a block to make a play. Those safeties don’t necessarily have to defeat a block. They have an extra hat and if you’re running downhill and you’ve got a guy running at you with the ball, it helps to be a bigger, more physical guy.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.