MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Making 13 starts as a true freshman put Dravon Henry’s career on a soaring trajectory.
Just don’t presume the former four-star recruit is automatically in line to retain the job as West Virginia’s free safety.
Junior-to-be Jeremy Tyler, who unsuccessfully challenged Henry during preseason camp last season, is mounting a more serious run this spring.
“There are lots of position battles, but that one’s the most heated,” said West Virginia safeties coach Joe DeForest. “They’re battling each and every play.”
Though Henry’s performance hasn’t slumped noticeably, Tyler’s gains have been hard to ignore. He continued working with the second-team defense during Saturday’s scrimmage at the Greenbrier Resort and bears watching at next Saturday’s Gold and Blue spring game.
“He has played more physical,” DeForest said. “At that spot we ask him to do a lot of open-field tackling. He’s gotten better at it and it means lot to him.”
Both are 5-foot-11 with Tyler sporting about a 9-pound advantage at 205. Their playing time last season, however, was hardly identical: Henry was on the field for 901 of West Virginia’s 957 defensive snaps compared to Tyler’s 59.
With special-teams action including Tyler on an additional 86 plays, he closed the season with nine tackles. Yet the former three-star prospect—who chose WVU over Vanderbilt on national signing day in 2013—seemed to be buried behind Henry, the prize of the Mountaineers’ 2014 recruiting class.
Straight out of Aliquippa, Pa., and into West Virginia’s starting lineup, Henry started against Alabama in the opener and largely avoided the coverage busts that plague young safeties.
He became the team’s sixth-leading tackler with 45 stops, broke up two passes and made both of his interceptions during a 34-10 win at Oklahoma State. He returned one of those 52 yards for a touchdown, and he was at the pick-six business again at Saturday’s scrimmage, returning a Skyler Howard interception 20 yards.
Henry hasn’t been available for interviews since arriving on campus last summer—part of the coach Dana Holgorsen’s new policy of restricting freshmen from media access.
In January, Henry was among four freshman players cited for marijuana possession inside a campus residence hall, the discipline from which Holgorsen said would be handled internally. That incident appears to have no bearing on the free safety position competition, considering how one of the other players cited, Yodny Cajuste, is the front-runner at left tackle.
Apparently this is about pushing Henry to make a significant Year 2 leap as one of 10 returning starters on a defense that coordinator Tony Gibson expects “to be great.” The safeties, in particular, should be stellar with tackling machine Karl Joseph and the always-amplified K.J. Dillon back for their senior seasons.
After being a key member of that 3-3-5 stack secondary, Henry must prove himself again.
“He’s been told that by me and by Gibbie, I can assure you,” DeForest said. “There’s complacency in everybody and Dravon can’t rest, because JT’s just having a really good spring.”
That’s equally apparent to teammates as it is to coaches.
“Jeremy’s just hungry,” said cornerback Terrell Chestnut. “He puts in extra work, he’s doing the little things nobody really sees, and he’s pushing Dravon.”