I don't know if there is a strong enough word to explain the degree to which the WVU secondary has struggled in their first two seasons in the Big 12 conference. There is no sugarcoating it. The unit was historically bad.
Take your pick of most any game the past two seasons.
In 2012: the 63 points given up in their debut in the Big 12 in a win against Baylor, the 49-14 loss at Texas Tech a week later that brought the team back to earth, the brutal 94 yard touchdown in the final minute of what would be an overtime loss to TCU. And 2013: allowing 52 points in an overtime loss to Iowa State, and the worst of all: a 73-42 loss to the Bears in which the Mountaineers gave up 872 yards. EIGHT HUNDRED AND SEVENTY TWO YARDS.
In the first year in their new conference, the Mountaineers ranked 117th out of 119 FBS teams in opponent passing yards per game, giving up 312.5 yards per game through the air. Last season, after showing promise the first couple games, they finished the season ranked 106th in that category, allowing 263.3 passing yards per game.
Now, the secondary certainly isn't solely to blame for the team's woes. It has been a collective dumpster fire on the defensive side of the ball for two consecutive years (save for those first few games of last year). It's tough to defend when the QB has all day to make the throws. Remember the infamous quote from former Texas Tech QB Seth Doege after the Red Raiders dominated the Mountaineers in '12? "When you don't have a pass rush it's a lot easier to make your reads." Though the DBs are the ones that have received the brunt of the criticism, the linebackers and defensive linemen also have had their share of struggles.
It appears, though, that the worst is behind them. With a new season brings a new hope that a more experienced, deeper, and more athletic group can bring the unit back to respectability and possibly become one of the strengths of the team. Safety Karl Joseph enters his third season in the Big 12 with hopes of combining bone-crunching hits with improved coverage. Cornerback Daryl Worley is one of the hot names in all the conference, expecting to make the leap into an all-conference performer. KJ Dillon, who was moved to the Spur position (a hybrid safety/linebacker spot) should be one of the leaders of that side of the ball. The other two spots appear to still be up for grabs, with multiple guys seeing playing time, which is hopefully where the improved depth shows itself in the pass happy Big 12. We'll get into that more in a bit.
Let's take a look at the contributors:
Cornerback - So. Daryl Worley
The 6'1, 198 pound sophomore Worley without a doubt has the highest expectations of anybody on the defensive side of the ball. He's been pegged as a preseason all-conference player, and media types all over the country have touted him as a guy to keep an eye on. Worley also has confidence in himself to have a big year. "I feel like a completely different person," Worley told ESPN last month. "I went from not knowing what to expect to being a student of the game and trying to perfect everything, studying so much and try to be perfect." For WVU to succeed in 2014, Worley will need to be a shutdown corner.
The rumblings out of fall camp were that he lived up to the hype. Dana has said multiple times that he just looks different from the other guys. He combines freak athleticism with great leadership and a good head on his shoulders. There is a reason Dana brought him to Big 12 media days. He spoke like a poised, professional young man who was ready to take on a much bigger role in 2014. We'll find out quickly just how much he has improved, as he'll most certainly be given the assignment of covering Alabama WR Amari Cooper, a preseason All- .
Cornerback - Sr. Ickey Banks/Jr. Terrell Chestnut/Sr. Travis Bell/So. Jaylon Myers?
The other cornerback position still hasn't been completely solidified. Ickey Banks was the frontrunner for that spot after starting all 12 games in 2013, but academic issues have resulted in him being suspended for the first three weeks of the regular season. Banks had the biggest play of 2013, returning an interception for a touchdown in the upset win over #11 Oklahoma State.
The two guys that are battling for the starting spot with Banks are junior Terrell Chestnut, who has dealt with injury most of his career, and senior Travis Bell. Coach Holgorsen said both Chestnut and Bell will take snaps against the Crimson Tide on Saturday. One guy to watch out for though is JUCO All-American transfer Jaylon Myers, who was finally admitted to WVU, but missed all of fall camp. He likely won't see any playing time against Alabama, but Myers could potentially end up being the guy holding down the spot by the end of the season.
Bandit Safety - Jr. Karl Joseph
Karl Joseph, voted one of the biggest hitters in college football by NFL.com, has become a rock of the defensive side at the safety position. Pass coverage has never been Joseph's strong suit, but he's hoping to improve upon that to go with all the Youtube-worthy hits and solid run stopping.
Any defense would love to have a player that plays with the type of aggression that Joseph has, and you can bet wide receivers always keep an eye on him, especially as they're going over the middle.
Jarrod Harper will be Joseph's backup, and by all accounts he had a great fall camp and could be an asset should Joseph go down.
Free Safety - Fr. Dravon Henry/So. Jeremy Tyler
Leading up to fall camp, it was beginning to seem like a foregone conclusion that true freshman Dravon Henry would be the starter at free safety. But sophomore Jeremy Tyler has been so impressive lately that it appears he is forcing himself on the field. Henry was listed as the starter on yesterday's depth chart, for what that is worth.
Henry was the most heralded newcomer in the 2014 class, a four star recruit that turned down the likes of Ohio State and Florida State to join the Mountaineers. Star cornerback Daryl Worley, who had an impressive freshman season, said Henry is ahead of where he was at this point last season. "He's covering so much ground, even if a corner does get beat, he's right over the top. He's a guy that we can instill our trust in that he's going to be behind us," he told reporters before fall camp.
Henry is faster and a better athlete, so by the end of the season as he becomes more accustomed to the college game he'll likely be the main guy. Regardless, both players are going to see significant playing time.
Spur - Sr. KJ Dillon
KJ Dillon, who missed most of fall camp, says he is now full-go. Junior college transfer Dayron Wilson held down the spur position while Dillon was gone, and by all accounts was doing a great job - good enough to earn a full scholarship from head coach Dana Holgorsen. The spur position is new for KJ, but he appears extremely confident in his ability to play the multifaceted position.
"To play Spur you just have to be a physical guy, make tackles in space, come down and take on tight ends, blitz off the edge..but also you gotta be able to go out there and cover slots, you gotta be able to stay in coverage and go back deep," Dillon told reporters last week. He has plenty of experience, and even though he's playing a new position, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson will be looking toward him to lead.
Pitt transfer Cullen Christian is listed as Dillon's backup on the most recent depth chart.
Where does WVU need to rank in pass defense for this unit to be considered a success? Top 50? Top 75? The depth that the Mountaineers have in the secondary is without a doubt the best it's been since their arrival in the Big 12 conference. Other names to keep an eye out for are Ricky Rumph, Keishawn Richardson, Nana Kyeremeh, and Brandon Napoleon. We won't have to wait long to find out if the hype surrounding the group is real. Two weeks after having to deal with Amari Cooper and the rest of Alabama's five star wide receivers, they'll be going up against one of the best wide receiver duos in the country in Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. An optimism exists for the unit that hasn't been seen in Morgantown for a while. If Worley fulfills his potential, Henry quickly adapts to the college game, and everyone can stay reasonably healthy, that optimism can become production.