MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When West Virginia head coach Neal Brown met the media following the first practice of fall camp, he made it known cornerbacks Wesley McCormick and Rashad Ajayi factor heavily into the team’s defensive plans.
“We brought them in here for two reasons — we thought they could compete for starting spots at the corner position,” Brown said, “and also help us on multiple special teams.”
After cornerbacks Daryl Porter and Nicktroy Fortune opted to transfer early in the offseason, the Mountaineers were left with only Charles Woods in terms of players with a wealth of college experience at that position.
By June, Ajayi, a Colorado State transfer, and McCormick, who spent the previous five years at James Madison, had pledged commitments to West Virginia to use their final year of eligibility.
“It was clear coming out of spring that we needed some experience,” Brown said. “We like our guys. We like Andrew Wilson-Lamp, but we needed some experience in that room to match Charles.”
The 5-foot-11, 182-pound Ajayi, nor the 5-11, 200-pound McCormick, has ever played at the Power 5 Conference level. Still, that did nothing to deter the Mountaineers from pursuing both players when they entered the transfer portal.
Ajayi started 35 games at cornerback over four years at CSU, including starts in each of the team’s four contests in a COVID-shortened 2020 campaign.
McCormick’s college journey has been a unique one in that he played in all 15 games as a true freshman for the Dukes and 26 over the following two seasons, during which he made 14 starts at corner. In 2020, McCormick started seven games at cornerback, before opting to redshirt after playing one game in 2021 to maintain a year of eligibility.
“You cannot mimic the experience they have, whether it’s FCS, FBS, Group of 5 or the Power 5,” WVU defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said. “It doesn’t matter. They have college football experience.
“You hope they lean on that, because a kid with the same height, same weight and same speed out of high school does not have that to lean on. Everything is moving extremely fast to him. Everybody has his talent level, speed and strength. That doesn’t mean he’s not going to be a good player. His learning curve is just a little bit sharper than the guy with experience. They’ll lean on that and that’s fine.”
WVU’s additions to the back end of its defense extend beyond cornerback as well.
In March, the Mountaineers got a commitment from Jasir Cox, who played in 23 games over his first two seasons at North Dakota State before starting all 24 over the last two years, splitting time as a linebacker and defensive back.
Like McCormick, Cox comes from a winning FCS program and has an opportunity at immediate playing time. He’s in the mix at WVU’s spear position, one of three safety spots the Mountaineers will likely have new starters at following the departures of Alonzo Addae, Sean Mahone and Scottie Young.
“Those guys tend to be very hungry and eager to prove from high school or junior college that they’re at this level,” Lesley said of adding FCS transfers. “There are things they were told they couldn’t do. Now they have the opportunity to show they can do it. Guys that have that mindset and mentality are a lot of fun to coach.”
North Dakota State has won nine of the last 11 FCS national championships, two of which they claimed with victories over James Madison and three of which Cox was on the team for. One of the two titles not garnered by NDSU during that stretch was won by the Dukes in 2016.
The success of both programs isn’t lost on WVU’s coaching staff.
“Most of your FCS guys are making that move for a reason, and that reason the majority of the time is to prove something in the twilight of their careers that they can compete against a higher level of competition,” Lesley said. “When you go through that process, being a part of programs that have traditionally done what the programs those guys are from, then it does matter.”
At 6-1 and 204 pounds, Cox can provide versatility for Lesley’s unit, but above all else, an abundance of experience from all three aforementioned transfers could be beneficial to this version of West Virginia.
“People that are maybe having some preseason questions, they’re not necessarily taking info effect that we added over 1,000 reps and live snaps from James Madison and North Dakota State,” Brown said. “Last time I checked, they play pretty good football. And then Rashad at Colorado State. While they haven’t played for us, they’ve played football at a really high level. Those three guys have to be ready to play for us and they will.”