MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It’s no secret that the back end of West Virginia’s defense is largely lacking in experience.
There’s a pair of seniors starting at cornerback, but after that things start getting dicey. Josh Norwood is a senior, but playing a new position after moving from corner to safety when Kenny Robinson and Derrek Pitts left the program in the offseason. Sean Mahone is also a former corner who has primarily played special teams his first two seasons.
As for the second-stringers?
“We’re running a daycare with the twos,” said defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. “It looks like they’re all gonna be freshmen, pretty much. But you’re only freshmen for one day. They have to play like they’re older guys. They have to step up and play.”
Unless their offensive coordinators are asleep at the wheel, West Virginia’s early opponents can be expected to try exploiting the Mountaineers secondary.
Koenning can’t give his safeties and backup cornerbacks more experience. But he can still protect them from being exposed.
“Our D-line has got to be a force,” Koenning said.
If the Mountaineers can get to the quarterback quickly enough, it can erase any disadvantage youth brings to the secondary. It may also lead to the types of throws that lead to interceptions and a confidence boost for players who are just getting their feet wet.
Koenning knows he’s asking a lot of the defensive front, which is why he’s trying to make sure WVU can legitimately play three-deep among the three down linemen and at the pass-rushing bandit position.
“We do a lot of things to try to give them edges and angles,” Koenning said. “Five men – and I’m talking about our [middle linebacker], Dylan Tonkery — have got to be able to stop the run and be great against the pass. A lot of those guys have had some sacks in camp.
“The thing we’ve got to do is it’s got to be a ‘we’ deal. If we have defensive linemen playing more than 40 snaps a game, we’re not doing what we need to do. We’re trying to develop the depth to do that.”
If the defensive line is the most vital part of West Virginia’s defense, the bandit is its nexus.
“That position is vital to what we do,” Koenning said.
Senior left tackle Colton McKivitz explained how the bandit sets the tempo for West Virginia’s defense.
“The biggest nightmare for an [offensive] tackle is that wide-nine technique,” McKivitz said. “You’re always thinking he’s going to get past your edge, and speed kills. The guys they have right now are doing a pretty good job of it. You have to have some speed with it. It presents a problem.”
Senior Quondarius Qualls has established himself as a potential force during camp.
“Qualls is the one I look for in pass protection,” McKivitz said. “He has a heck of a speed rush and is great at the dip/rip move. He’s able to touch the ground. That’s real hard for a tackle who is used to punching a 6-4, 6-5 guy, trying to punch Qualls when he’s touching the ground.”
VanDarius Cowan and Zach Sandwisch give the Mountaineers needed depth for the taxing position. Koenning is not convinced that trio is where it needs to be yet, however.
“We’re still trying to get the guys we have there better. We’re not anywhere near where we want to be,” Koenning said. “We want other teams to try to find that position. That position needs to be one that’s a playmaker.”