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Is West Virginia's cornerback room in better shape than we think?

The Mountaineer secondary appeared to be down bad ahead of spring ball, but an influx of new talent and some offseason development have me feeling excited

NCAA Football: Big 12 Media Days Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jackie Matthews was the first one in the portal. This wasn't necessarily a surprise, as we'd seen him walk on Senior Day. What was surprising, however, was Darryl Porter and Nicktroy Fortune following suit. Just like that, a promising secondary was gutted and left searching for answers. While I was hopeful that spring ball had provided some of them, it was yesterday's release of the preseason depth chart that really has me feeling optimistic about the room again.

Let's start with what we know. We know that Charles Woods was our best defensive player for the second half of the 2021 season. In fact, we know that he was one of the best cornerbacks in the country for the second half of the season. Woods' 83 overall PFF grade ranked 10th among Power 5 cornerbacks with at least 200 snaps last year while his 87.2 coverage grade ranked 6th (both led the Big 12), and he didn't allow a reception in the final 4 games of the season. He's a very good player and has the potential to be the foundational piece of a very good secondary.

We also know that Wesley McCormick and Rashad Ajayi, who are currently listed as the backups at the left and right cornerback positions respectively on our preseason depth chart, are going to raise the room's floor. McCormick comes in as a multiyear starter at FCS power James Madison. He was hurt for most of 2021 but registered an 89.0 PFF grade over 353 snaps in 2020 and allowed completions on just 39% of the passes that targeted him over his two years as a starter. Ajayi's 66.8 PFF grade and 58.9% completions allowed were slightly worse, albeit against better competition, but there's a reason the guy has 35 P5 starts and 2000+ snaps to his name. You couldn't ask for much better replacements on such short notice, or for a more seasoned duo for the younger guys to learn from.

Speaking of that younger group, let's get into some speculation with Andrew Wilson-Lamp. AWL's emergence was one of the more pleasant surprises of the spring. His physical tools were never in question, but something seemed to click about how he can leverage those tools in coverage. With just 19 career snaps to his name he's still very green, but his length and athleticism provide the foundation for a very good player.

JUCO transfer Jaylon Shelton offers a similar physical profile. At 6'3 188, Shelton has the frame to bother guys at the line and contest jump balls downs the field. I think he should be a good fit for the zone scheme we've run over the past few years.

The wild cards in the room are freshmen Jacoby Spells and Mumu Bin Wahad. Both were highly regarded members of the class of 22, and they're the duo that has the potential to help this group exceed expectations. Bin Wahad appeared to struggle a bit this spring as a should-be high school senior, while Spells is just now finding his feet as a summer enrollee. Spells has a slighter build at just 5'11 170, but 10.7ish speed in the 100 meters more than makes up for it. I don't think it's reasonable to expect either of them to be every down players this year, but if one or both can progress enough to be a situational coverage specialist it would allow our defense to play more aggressively in those situations and maybe generate a few more turnovers.

Overall I'm still cautious, but it's hard not to be encouraged by the mix of skillsets. Woods provides the high-end talent while Ajayi and McCormick should both be good enough that the younger guys aren't forced into action before they're ready. If AWL can build on the flashes he showed during the spring and at least one of Shelton, Spells, and Mumu can pop, this has a chance to be one better groups in the conference by mid-season.