MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Two games may seem too soon for panic, yet both defensive coordinators walked away from last weekend’s West Virginia-East Carolina game promising changes.
ECU made a dramatic one by demoting Kenwick Thompson in the aftermath of that 56-20 shelling. Tony Gibson doesn’t face any such peril at WVU, though his current pass defense presently appears unequipped to deal with the gauntlet of Big 12 quarterbacks.
The alarms clang loudest at cornerback, where among the top four players, only Mike Daniels has looked reliable so far. He has been targeted 13 times in man coverage, with the receiver posting a 30-percent success rate. The results on man targets against Elijah Battle, Hakeem Bailey and Corey Winfield illustrate why Gibson says, “We are not happy right now at corner.”
In the chart below we counted defensive pass interference as a completion:
Keep in mind these passing breakdowns occurred against a Virginia Tech redshirt freshman and an ECU offense that has yanked its starting quarterback in each of its first two games. Gibson’s brain might overheat if he extrapolates how that bodes against the nation’s current No. 2-rated passer Baker Mayfield, or Mason Rudolph (No. 10) or Nic Simonek (No. 3) or Jesse Ertz (No. 4).
If only his cornerbacks could play with the same verve they show during Tuesday scrimmages against the FBS’s No. 16-rated quarterback Will Grier.
“They’ll look great in practice against a better offense than we’ve seen in games. They have great confidence in practice and then we get to the game, and I don’t know what happens to them,” Gibson said.
First-year cornerbacks coach Doug Belk praised Daniels for competing at the top of routes, a promising leap for a player who barely played as a junior. Battle appeared in 11 games during 2016 and seemed like such a sure bet to start this season that he’s featured on a 30-foot banner draping the stadium’s west concourse.
Bailey made his name with a strong preseason but has turned timid on gamedays. Winfield’s man coverage skills are lacking after being primarily cover-2 corner at Syracuse.
“We’ve got to make some instinctual plays where it comes down to winning see of those 50-50 balls,” Belk said. “The guys know they don’t play their best football last week. Going into conference play (next week) we want to get our best 11 guys on the field.”
While coaches haven’t given up on seniors like Battle and Winfield, neither are they content to struggle with older players who whose shelflife is short. That portends trying new combinations.
Said Gibson: “We need to keep searching to find the guy.”
The search abruptly turned to true freshman Kenny Robinson, who moved to cornerback last week after spending the preseason at free safety. Robinson attacked the position switch with an air of brashness and swagger lacking in some of the older players. Even though he was still fuzzy on pre-snap coverage signals, Robinson entered against ECU in the third quarter and batted down a deep pass intended for Trevon Brown.
The same Trevon Brown who torched Winfield for a 95-yard touchdown on series later.
“Kenny Robinson thinks he can cover everybody.” — West Virginia assistant Doug Belk
“Kenny thinks he’s probably the best player on the field,” Gibson said. “He has the mindset that he’s better than anyone he lines up against. He had that when I started recruiting him three years ago. He’s fearless.
“I love the way he plays. I love the way he acts. I love the way he thinks. He’s my kind of guy.”
After such a back-slapping endorsement, Robinson figures to see extended action Saturday against invited victim Delaware State, whose offense ranks 100th or worse in several FCS categories — completion percentage, third-down success and scoring. The Hornets have produced one touchdown and four turnovers so far.
This weekend could be a confidence-builder for the several facets of West Virginia defense, including a pass rush that has only one sack this season on 75 drop-backs.
“I’m not panicking, but right now we’re not clean,” Gibson said. “When you replace eight starters, it’s going to happen. We’re not going to go out and stone people and and shut people out.”