MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The fear loomed as real as the wrap on Kyzir White’s hand: Could a broken paw break an entire defense?
West Virginia’s Spur safety wasn’t playing against Baylor, leaving the unit’s most mission-critical position susceptible to first-time starter Marvin Gross. The prospect of the lanky, untested junior getting a full-game audition sparked curiosity at best, unmitigated dread at worst.
Turns out Baylor should have been dreading Gross’ breakout performance. His two sacks, forced fumble and interception factored mightily into West Virginia’s 24-21 win.
“The Spur, that’s the moneymaker on this defense,” Gross said. “If you’re in that position, you have to make those plays.”
Simply finding a position for Gross proved a challenge early in his career. He played Buck linebacker under Keith Patterson’s 3-4 scheme as a true freshman in 2013 despite being too light to take on offensive linemen. (He still calls that season’s Week 2 initiation at Oklahoma “mind-blowing.”)
Gross redshirted in 2014, unsuccessfully trying to add weight to his 6-foot-3 frame, which brought a shift to safety in new coordinator Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5. Last season, with KJ Dillon manning the Spur, Gross was an afterthought on the depth chart and appeared on a mere 24 defensive snaps.
He began preseason camp this fall working third-string, an if-necessary option behind the four-star junior college transfer White and senior backup Jeremy Tyler. When Dravon Askew-Henry’s knee injury shuffled Tyler to free safety, Gross became a second-teamer.
Still, he was only a bit player until White began clutching his injured hand during last week’s win at Iowa State.
“It’s been hard but I always trusted the process, and when it’s time, it’s time,” Gross said. “Clearly the coaches had a good plan for me.
“When you get your chance, you have to make plays. That’s how you stay on the field.”
On Baylor’s second play from scrimmage Chris Platt dove for an apparent 20-yard completion only to have the ball careen into the air as the receiver smacked the turf. Gross plucked the deflection, unsure whether the pass had been incomplete, and returned it 18 yards to the Baylor 30.
“I didn’t hear a whistle, so I kept running,” he said. “It was my first interception because the only one I had in high school got called back.”
Gross wrecked two third-down pass plays by blitzing from the slot. On one of them he punched a fumble loose from quarterback Zach Smith, setting up West Virginia’s struggling offense for an easy touchdown from the Baylor 6.
“He knows how to blitz and knows how to get after the quarterback,” said Gibson, whose defense forced four turnovers in holding Baylor to a season-low 21 points. “Marvin stepped up and played huge.”
While Baylor may not have seen this coming, West Virginia middle linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton saw Gross’ big game more than three years in the making. Both players enrolled in 2013 and were vying for a spot on the travel squad after camp injuries sidelined upperclassmen.
“Isaiah Bruce went down. (Jared) Barber went down. Kwit went down. (Jewone) Snow went down, and Doug Rigg was a little beat up,” Benton said. “So all the freshman guys ended up having to play, and the last two days of camp Marvin came out and had 10 sacks.
“I mean, the kid went in there and got 10 sacks in two days, so I’ve always known Marvin can play. When they made me redshirt my freshman year because I wasn’t good enough, Marvin played.”