MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Josh Norwood’s West Virginia career was bound to end on some act of reckless abandon.
Given his ejection from two games this season for committing targeting, a repeat violation was the most likely suspect for the senior safety. As it turned out, the only player at risk on his final play was Norwood himself.
On the most extraordinary piece of playmaking by a West Virginia defender this season, Norwood seemingly came out of nowhere, flying through the air to pick off a Skylar Thompson pass in the second quarter of West Virginia’s 24-20 win at Kansas State.
From where he flew, there was little hope of sticking the landing. Norwood’s collarbone broke upon its full-speed impact with the ground. Lauded earlier in the season by coach Neal Brown for his “contact courage,” Norwood went out the very way he always played the game — fearlessly.
— ESPN Player (@espnplayer) November 18, 2019
“When you’re watching film and you see a guy sell out his body, sell out everything he’s done to risk everything to play a ball – that’s something that’s an intangible you can’t teach,” said Mountaineers defensive lineman Reese Donahue.
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said the play was an extraordinary combination of play recognition and execution.
“That was the corner’s play,” Koenning said. “When the quarterback threw the ball, he was reading the corner.”
Kansas State Skylar Thompson isn’t the most dynamic quarterback in the league, but he may be the best at reading plays. Thompson had only thrown two interceptions all year and rarely makes the wrong read. As it turned out, he didn’t in this case, either.
WVU corner Hakeem Bailey took the wrong receiver, leaving K-State’s Landry Weber open downfield. Norwood saw what was happening and jumped the play before it turned into a potential disaster.
“Josh made a fantastic play,” Koenning said. “If you want to say he sacrificed his body, it would not be inaccurate to say that.”
Cornerback Keith Washington couldn’t believe his eyes when Norwood came down with the ball.
“Last year I made fun of him because he dropped eight interceptions,” Washington said. “It’s just crazy how he ended his career with an acrobat interception like that.”
The interception was the first, and likely last, of Norwood’s career. He was West Virginia’s third cornerback last season, but moved to safety when Derrek Pitts and Kenny Robinson left the program over the summer. The position is a far better fit, it would seem, given that Norwood is second on the team with 64 tackles despite missing the greater part of five halves of action due to penalties and the injury.
Whenever he is asked about Norwood, Koenning usually speaks in equal parts exasperation and admiration. Earlier in this season Koenning mentioned that Norwood is poised to be a great coach someday, but couched it by noting that Norwood’s biggest headaches will come from players like Norwood himself.
Koenning originally recruited Norwood out of high school in Valdosta, Ga., which is part of Troy’s natural territory. He figured Norwood was a Sun Belt-level player.
“He was a guy we would like at Troy. I wasn’t 100 percent sold on him because he was undersized and a little underspeed,” Koenning said. “I was shocked that Ohio State took him, to be candid.”
Norwood spent two seasons with the Buckeyes before transferring to Northwest Mississippi Community College, then signed with West Virginia in 2018.
This year, he and Koenning’s paths finally crossed again. Even if he is frequently frustrated by Norwood’s mistakes, it is clear Koenning has developed an affection that may be the strongest he has for any player.
“Josh has what they call ‘dawg’ in him. He is aggressive. He plays like we need all our guys to play like — except for the other parts,” Koenning said. “He’s also a wild card, not always in the right spot. His eyes aren’t always in the right spot. You get what you’ve got.
“He’s had a tumultuous college career and I’ll help him any way I can, because he really wants to be good at something. Being good and being the best matters to him, no matter what he wants to be in.”
There is a chance, however remote, that Norwood isn’t done just yet. Brown said that Norwood’s surgery went well, and a mid-December release is possible. If West Virginia wins its final two games, that would put Norwood on schedule to potentially play in a bowl.
“He’s in a good head space. We make it to a bowl game, he might be able to play,” Donahue said. “Regardless, he’s got a great future ahead of him.”