MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Jarrod Harper closed fast on the throw and belted a receiver into the Iowa State bench. Jeremy Tyler shed a 6-foot-5 blocker and simultaneously stripped the ballcarrier.
Two plays by two juniors on Saturday that offered a glimpse into West Virginia’s safeties for 2016, when three-fifths of the secondary must be replaced.
“I just have a better feel for the game,” said Harper, whose timetable was expedited when All-American strong safety candidate Karl Joseph tore an ACL in practice Oct. 6. “Losing Karl was a big deficit to our defense, but I know what I’m capable of. I didn’t want to try to go out and be what Karl was. I wanted to go out and make a name for myself.”
Harper’s name surfaced frequently during his first start, a six-tackle performance with two pass breakups during an overtime loss to Oklahoma State. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, fretting over his unit’s response to missing Joseph for the first time in 42 games, said Harper “played as good as anybody” on a night when Oklahoma State produced a season-worst 362 yards.
Overcoming occasional coverage lapses against Iowa State, Harper’s reactions revealed a player in tune with his assignments and those of other defensive backs. He’s no longer as hesitant to commit on certain reads, no longer fatigued in late-game situations, and WVU no longer feels the talent-suck it did when Joseph went down.
“I hated that Jarrod got the opportunity the way he got it, but he’s made the most of the opportunity,” Gibson said.
“He’s playing very physical right now. He’s got so much confidence in what he’s doing, understands the scheme and knows where to be. It’s coming natural to him. He had three or four big hits on those wideouts. You can see he’s playing fast.”
Joseph’s injury forced a transition for Tyler. Previously serving as Dravon Askew-Henry’s backup at free safety, he was needed at Bandit safety (behind Harper) and Spur (behind senior K.J. Dillon). In seven weeks since the shuffle, Tyler has alternated practice series at each spot.
“In practice I forget sometimes what position I’m at,” he admitted Tuesday. “I’ll be at Spur and feel like I have to get back on top of the roof, like where the free safety is supposed to be.
“It’s a mind thing. You’ve just got to calm down and think what are you doing and where you’re at.”
With a preference for playing Spur—which utilizes more edge blitzing and run support—Tyler figures to get first crack at the position next spring. It will have been a long wait for the three-star prospect who chose West Virginia over Vanderbilt on national signing day in 2013. Primarily a special-teamer his first two seasons, Tyler did make one late-season start as a freshman on that 4-8 squad.
“You could get impatient but you still have to figure out why you’re doing it and know that your time will come,” he said. “As a D-I athlete, you’ve got to have confidence. Even when Karl went down I automatically thought we were going to be straight.”