2006-2007 MOUNTAINEER FOOTBALL SEASON PREVIEW PART VII – Defensive backs
Speed and youth. For better or worse, that is what will be driving the WVU secondary in the 2006 season. Speed has always been the main ingredient required when discussing the secondary of the 3-3-5 defense and its ability to come up and make plays at the line or drop into coverage. Youth is the result of the mass exodus of seniors via the NFL or graduation. Regardless, the current group of defensive backs (corners, safeties, spurs and bandits) will help the West Virginia defense remain deceptive to opposing offenses and attempt to limit big plays along the way.
Unfortunately, the secondary lost 4 starters from last year’s Sugar Bowl-winning team. And not just any run-of-the-mill starters. We’re talking team leaders at corner in Dee McCann, Antonio Mims, and stellar all-Big East safeties Jahmile Addae and Mike “El Train” Lorello. Addae was a bruiser who particularly enjoyed contact and dishing out concussions to unsuspecting receivers, while Lorello seemed to be involved in every play of the game and flourished as imitating a linebacker when not roaming centerfield. These guys are currently in the NFL, which reveals just the type of players they had become.
Fortunately, the secondary returns pick-6 machine senior safety Eric Wicks who has an uncanny knack to make game changing plays. Along with Wicks, there are a lot of talented, albeit untested players to fill roles. It remains to be seen how long it will take for the group to gel. It will certainly help that the defenders in front of them bring a lot of experience and talent to allow them some growing pains. It also helps that Tyler Palko and Sam Hollenbach appear on the schedule, ensuring enough interceptions to go around for the entire secondary.
- Team Play
Last year’s secondary had the ability to come up with the big plays at the right time. One of the 17 turnovers recorded last year included Addae’s nail in the coffin interception late in the game against Pitt’s Tyler “I love West Virginia fans” Palko. Will this new group be able to pick up where Addae and company left off? We won’t know until they face Maryland on September 14 (I have heard we have a couple of warm-up games before them), but it seems that the sky is the limit in terms of their potential.
Defensive backs coach Tony Gibson will have to work hard to bring the new corners and safeties up to speed. Considering Gibby has brought the best out of unheralded guys in the secondary before, including McCann, Pacman Jones, Addae, and Lorello, it doesn’t seem like a stretch that the newcomers this year can provide the same type of production.
As mentioned, this year will include 4 new starters- Jrs. Antonio Lewis, Larry Williams, Ridwan Malik, and Sr. Abraham “Ham” Jones. This might seem a bit scary considering they will have to face the pass happy offenses of Maryland and Louisville, but the important thing to remember is that these guys have some experience, just not necessarily in a starting role. The leadership and experience of the departed DB’s will take time to overcome, but the returning players should have as much, if not more pure talent overall.
Leading the secondary will be Sr. Eric Wicks. Playing strong safety, Wicks was a beast last year collecting 61 tackles, 6.5 of which were for a loss. This helped him earn a 2nd team all Big East selection which he should improve upon this year as a senior. Wicks also seems to have a knack for returning interceptions for scores as he has tallied one in each of the last two years. (Yeah, we’re looking at you Syracuse.) And by the way, Wicks is also the answer to the trivia question: “What Mountaineer tackled Brian Brohm on the last play of the Louisville 3OT Miracle in 2005?”
The two cornerback spots should be occupied by Jrs. Antonio Lewis and Larry Williams. Because of his speed, Lewis has excelled at returning kicks and should be more than adequate at corner to keep up with the opposing receivers. Williams is not as experienced, and his stats from last year of a handful of tackles and an interception back that up. However, his size (6’1) and speed should allow him to step in without too much of drop-off.
The next spot is a tentative selection for the starting free safety. Currently, experienced Sr. Ham Jones is penciled in, but that could change after the first few games. Jones has been a warrior on special teams throughout his career, but has big shoes to fill in the departing Addae. He does have very good ball skills, but may soon be replaced by a player who, according to coaches around the program, could possibly be one of the best defensive athletes to wear the Gold and Blue in a long time. Redshirt Fr. Quinton Andrews is the physical type of safety who should accept the torch from Addae as far as removing opposing receivers’ heads from their bodies. Once Q gets a better grasp of the defense, Jones will have to be on top of his game to hold onto that starting spot.
The last bandit spot should belong to Jr. Ridwan Malik who will attempt to pick up where Lorello left off. Malik does bring the hit stick as well but it will be important that he be a very good tackler since he will be placed all around the field in the different defensive formations.
Unfortunately having an almost entirely new starting secondary means the depth behind it will not bring much experience to the table. Jr. CB Vaughn Rivers could compete for more playing time, but considering his versatility, it’s only a matter of time before Coach Rod uses him at other positions if needed. The other CB spot will be spelled by RS Fr. Kent Richardson. Although a raw specimen at this point, he did have a good spring and should be groomed to take over the starting spot sooner than you think. He brings good size (6’ 1’’ 195) and has the tools to create turnovers as well.
The other backup jobs will belong to Akeem Jackson and Charles Pugh. Both have been gladiators on the specials teams in the past. Jackson has been around the defense enough to be a decent relief when called upon. Pugh is a true sophomore who is athletic enough to make a run at starting while in the program. Finally, another intriguing safety is So. SS John Holmes. A former linebacker, Holmes is a big, fast player who is fast enough to cover but isn’t afraid to come up and “lay the wood” either (naturally).
- Wrap up
Considering the new faces out there, many fans will be holding their breath whenever they see opposing quarterbacks taking their shots downfield. I, however, believe the new starters return enough experience to help WVU’s defense stay aggressive and not skip a beat from their dominance in the past. Look for Wicks to have another big year as the leader of the secondary. After the first few tune-up games, we should all rest easy knowing that there is plenty of speed in the secondary, and we can always count on the bone-shattering hits that have become a staple of West Virginia’s secondary in recent years.
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