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2019 West Virginia Football Preview: The Secondary

The Mountaineer defensive backfield took a hit this spring with some unforeseen attrition at some key positions, but with a solid mix veteran leadership and youthful exuberance there may yet be some hope that the unit will be the strength we expected them to be.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 22 Kansas State at West Virginia Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With a whole host of alumni now littered around the NFL, the national profile of the Mountaineer secondary definitely took a couple of steps forward during the Dana Holgorsen era. The trick now for Vic Koenning is to take that success and build upon it while weathering the departure of a couple of his best defensive players.

The Corners

Our cornerback rotation features two relatively established veterans and a whole lot of unknowns, though the coaches certainly make it seem like there's plenty of talent in the room. Let's start with what we know.

The two returning contributors are redshirt seniors Keith Washington and Hakeem Bailey, who each started games for us last year and did decent jobs. The 6'1 180lb Washington was probably the more consistent of the two, though we'll look for both to do a better job of keeping things in front of them this year. I'm not sure that either has the ceiling of a Rasul Douglas or Daryl Worley, but both are battle-tested and could sneak onto an All-Conference team if they stay healthy and play to their potential.

Things get murky fairly quickly after that, but one guy who should have an NFL ceiling is JUCO transfer Dreshun Miller. Miller was previously committed to LSU before coming home to Morgantown and at a wiry 6'1 190lbs has prototypical size to go along with the fluid hips and next-level anticipation that all great corners have. He seemed destined to push for one of the starting jobs after a strong spring but is notably absent from the JMU depth chart with a nagging injury.

Nicktroy Fortune and Tae Mayo are pair of true freshman who have reportedly shot up the charts since the start of fall camp. At 6'0 187 Fortune is probably more physically ready to play right away than the 5'11 161 lb Mayo, but as of this morning both are listed as number twos, with Fortune being looked at as a potential starter.

Devan Wade is another guy who's been receiving regular praise from the staff this offseason. The 5'9 178lb redshirt senior hasn't seen any game action in his two years here since transferring from junior college but was a two-time scout team champion a year ago, so maybe a fresh start with a new staff is just what he needed to close his career out on a high note.

Rounding out the group are redshirt freshman Malachi Ruffin and true freshmen Tacorey Turner and Naim Muhammad. Ruffin redshirted last year while Muhammad is a walk-on and expectations for both should be tempered accordingly, but Turner is a guy who we're definitely expecting things from in the future. HCNB has praised his length and athleticism since he arrived on campus, but with the crowd ahead of him it seems likely that he'll redshirt this year barring unforeseen circumstances.

The Frees

Free safety was supposed to be one of the strengths of our defense, but the departure of All-Conference safety Kenny Robinson has left us shuffling things frequently in search of a new face (or two) to emerge. Here's the rotation as it stands today.

It looks like senior Josh Norwood will be the starter against JMU. Norwood played corner last year and was one of the team's tone setters despite his diminutive stature. He seems like a good fit at the free, where his experience at the back should help him ensure that everybody in front of him is in the right spots.

The only other guy on the two-deep right now is Kerry Martin Jr, the third true freshman who seems ready to receive some substantial playing time this year. The Charleston, WV native has good size at 6'0 195 and as an early enrollee has the benefit of a full spring of college ball under his belt.

The Cats

The Cat is a hybrid safety position that requires guys to be equally adept at both dropping into coverage and playing close to the line, and it's unfortunately another position where the two-deep has been in a constate state of flux.

Sean Mahone appears to be getting the nod for now. A 5'11 200lb redshirt junior, Mahone is now entering his fourth year on campus and needs to start making his mark after missing most of last season with an injury. He's a cornerback by trade and by all accounts is one of the better athletes in our secondary, so hopefully the position change will give his career here a bit of a jumpstart.

The second guy in the week 1 rotation is a fourth true freshman, 5'10 185lb Tykee Smith. Smith has drawn rave reviews from coaches and teammates alike for his performances so far this fall, so it'll be interesting to see if he's able to carry that over and hit the ground running once the bullets start flying.

A final guy at the Cat is JUCO transfer Noah Guzman. Guzman was a late addition to the 2019 recruiting class and I thought that as a true sophomore he may end up redshirting, but his inclusion on the week 1 depth chart appears to indicate that he's already up to speed and ready to roll. If you read about Guzman's football journey to Morgantown, he’s defied the odds and made plays everywhere he’s been, so here’s to that trend continuing.

The Spears

Like the Cat, the Spear safety is a hybrid position not unlike the Spur in our old 3-3-5, and as such, we have plenty of guys who should be capable of playing well there.

The first is Jovanni Stewart. At just 5'8 196, Stewart has the agility to play in space but as we saw last year, he definitely has the toughness to hold his own in the box. His skill set seems tailor-made for the Spear and I think we can expect him to have a big senior year.

Next in the rotation is redshirt freshman Kwantel Raines, who at a rangy 6'2 212 lbs looks like he was built in a lab to play this position. Raines has a ton of potential, and with our lack of established depth it'd be really nice to see him start staking his claim as a key contributor.

The final guy in the mix here is Bridgeport native Dante Bonamico. The redshirt junior has repeatedly received praise for his work this offseason and has gotten looks at multiple positions before finally settling at the Spear. He'll likely see most of his time on special teams again this year, but should be a serviceable stand-in here if called upon.