MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — At different times throughout Neal Brown’s four seasons in Morgantown, West Virginia’s defense has posted some of the best numbers in Big 12 Conference and also some of the worst. Last season, the Mountaineers allowed 37.8 points per game against conference opponents, placing them last in the ten-team league.
Two years ago, WVU was second-best in the Big 12, yielding 21.8 points per game.
With transfer portal defections and a young roster taking the field in 2022, some growing pains were anticipated on the defensive side of the ball. The Mountaineers allowed at least 38 points in seven games and they ranked 116th out of 131 FBS teams in points allowed per game.
“In the second half of the season, we got a lot better on defense. One of the reasons being is that we got more aggressive with play calls. I thought that allowed us to play a little faster than we had previously up to that point,” said WVU co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach ShaDon Brown.
“How you remedy that is you hope you have returners. I don’t know how you can remedy it if you have new pieces. We’ve got some pieces back. Naturally, we should be better in that aspect because we’ve got some guys that have played and have played together.”
Brown is working with seven cornerbacks in spring drills and that number will increase early in the summer. Redshirt sophomore Andrew Wilson-Lamp has played in 15 games over the last two seasons.
Sophomore Jacolby Spells played in nine games last year as a true freshman. He returned an interception for a touchdown to seal WVU’s victory at Virginia Tech.
“I thought last year he had some plays where he flashed and some plays where he didn’t. That’s what I call growing pains. That’s any freshman at any position is going to have those growing pains.
“He has changed his work habits to be able to play at this level. I am starting to see that out there in practice, just being able to control his body and his play speed and play strength. I think he is a guy that is going to make a huge jump and you will see that in the fall.”
Redshirt junior Jaylon Shelton is entering his second year with the Mountaineers. He arrived in Morgantown late in the summer, just prior to the start of training camp.
“The first place he has made a jump is that he has changed his body. He is over 190 [pounds]. At 6-foot-1, he can really run. He has made a jump I think just in his overall physicality. When he got here last year, he was undersized and underdeveloped coming from junior college. He didn’t show a lot of physicality. I think now because he has improved his strength, he can help us in areas. I think he will help us on special teams. And I think he will be able to go in the game at corner and help us because he is physically ready.”
The veteran of the group is sixth-year senior Malachi Ruffin. He has split time between cornerback and safety. Ruffin has played in 33 games over the last three seasons.
“Ruffin is what I like to call ‘Steady Eddie’. Ruffin can play multiple positions. He is a coach on the field. He has played college football for six years. He knows the scheme. We can move him without training him up. We can move him to a new position in the secondary and he can fit right in.
“He was very quiet and very introverted. He never talked. And now, the game of football has given that kid confidence. He walks around with a different aura about him now. That’s really cool to see when you see the game of football really changed his demeanor.”
A pair of twin brothers are newcomers to the Mountaineers’ secondary. Josiah Jackson graduated high school early and is participating in spring drills. His brother Jordan is scheduled to arrive on campus in the summer.
“[Josiah] has done a good job of playing through a mistake. That’s probably been the best thing I have seen out of him, making a mistake and then on the next play not making the same mistake but keeping his confidence.
“With his brother coming in in the summer, I think he has the speed to be able to run with any guy we’ve got. When he came here, I think he was a 4.55 guy on the clock. So he is a step faster probably than Josiah.”
Kent State transfer Montre Miller is another newcomer in the group. Miller played in 41 games over the last five seasons at KSU.
Many position coaches on defense have stressed the importance of simplifying the schemes and getting back to focusing on fundamentals this year. Brown says that focus on the basics must continue into the season and not be left behind when September comes around.
“Sometimes as you get into the season, you lose some of your fundamental things that you’ve worked on because if you don’t do it, you lose it. We just went back to the basics of football, trying to get better at those fundamental things. We’re putting more emphasis on that than scheme.”
College coaches have to find a balance between keeping their players healthy throughout spring and fall practices while getting defensive players enough live tackling snaps to build necessary fundamentals.
“In the old days, you could tackle as much as you want. Now, the way the rules are set, you try to tackle with bags and try to tackle with technique and tackling posture. But there is no substitute for being able to go body-on-body and taking a ball carrier to the ground. We do that as much as the rules allow us. But everybody else is playing with the same rules as well,” Brown said.
West Virginia’s entire defensive coaching staff has returned after a season of significant struggles. Brown is adamant that the Mountaineers will progress in 2023 as a result of staff cohesion and more experienced players at all three levels of the defense.
“I didn’t forget how to coach. I’ve got to coach better than last year. But I promise you, I didn’t forget how to coach. We’ll be better. And that goes for all those guys in that room. We didn’t forget how to coach. You weren’t writing those articles in ’21, that the defense wasn’t good. I promise you, we didn’t forget how to coach. It is the same guys and we are coaching just as hard. We’ve got to adjust some things we are doing because of players and how we coach them. But we will get better, I promise you.”