MORGANTOWN — Over the past two years, as West Virginia gave up a rather amazing 895 points with 62 touchdown passes and 7,238 aerial yards, it became apparent that something had to be done to fortify the pass defense.
It was addressed in many forms, a push toward a stronger pass rush through a change in defensive formation and the addition of players such as Shaquille Riddick and Edward Muldrow and the return from injury of Brandon Golson. But also through building upon the cornerback position, most noticeably by taking Daryl Worley and giving him the position.
Cornerback, you see, may well be the most difficult position other than quarterback to play on the field and it takes not only the best athlete on the defense but someone with the right makeup to handle it.
“They should be the best athletes. They have to cover what the offense feels is their best athletes,” said Tony Gibson, who last year coached in the secondary but this year has moved in with the linebackers as well as taking over as defensive coordinator.
The cornerback position leaves a man out of an island, normally alone working against a wide receiver who is probably the best athlete on the other side of the ball, a player of great skills who knows where he is going, leaving the corner in the position of being reactionary.
Brian Mitchell, the cornerback coach, is in charge of changing these athletes into cornerbacks.
“You keep it simple,” he says, offering a sample of how he approaches it. “One, give great effort. If you give great effort, you can mask some of your deficiencies. If you are assignment sound, if you are technique sound, then, if you have a deficiency in speed, at least your technique can overcome some of the weaknesses.
“If you have the 5-foot-10 guy who can run and jump and match up with the 5-10 receiver as well as the 6-1 receiver, that’s the young man who, if he studies in the classroom, is going to be pretty dynamic.”
Make him 6-1 and 200 pounds like Worley and you have got really something special, as Worley showed on Friday.
“Yesterday we went with a little live drill at the end of practice and it was probably his best day he’s had in camp so far. He got his hands on a few balls. He had a pick. He did some really good things,” Gibson said.
But a corner can’t rely on his natural ability and believe he will succeed because the offense always has the edge of knowing what it is doing, where it is going and doing it moving forward while the cornerback spends half his life running backwards.
“That’s where the knowledge and technique of the game comes in,” Gibson said. “They have to know when to get out of that backpedal and get their body into position to make the play. That’s where kids struggle, in that transition.”
To make it easier, this is where studying their opponent on tape comes in.
“We go to everything from looking at the wide receiver’s feet — is the right foot forward or the left foot forward? — to the depth of routes, when they motor down, does their head sink … there’s so much different stuff,” Gibson said.
You are looking for tips, habits certain receivers get into that gives away what the route might be or if they are the primary receiver. It’s almost like a baseball batter noticing that a pitcher who is about to throw a curve ball has his tongue sticking out of the side of his mouth and taking advantage of it.
No matter how good an athlete, no matter how good his technique, no matter how much he studies … a cornerback will be beaten for touchdowns on occasion.
It’s how they handle that which often dictates just how good a corner they will really be.
“First thing, you better have a short memory and have a thick skin because everyone sees you get beat,” Gibson said. “They know it’s No. 5 or No. 7 or No. 10 who is beat, right down to the old lady who’s here watching the game with the granddaughter or grandson.
“It’s part of the game. There’s never been a cornerback who hasn’t been beaten for a touchdown.”
Mitchell does what he can to create the right mental approach.
“If a wide receiver is going to beat you, as long as you are consistent in your fundamentals and technique, it is going to have to be a perfect throw and a perfect route,” he said, referring back to Friday’s practice session.
“We had a ball caught in the corner of the end zone yesterday and there was probably only a window of 12 inches in which the kid make the catch. Technique was great, his athletic ability put him in that position. It was just a perfect throw and catch.
“That’s going to happen and you have to understand that the guy outexecuted me and there’s nothing I could have done.”
Of course, if you are giving up plays because you aren’t playing well or lack confidence in the scheme or your technique, that then becomes something for the coach to correct.
And what does Mitchell say?
“Play the next play and trust what you’ve been coached to do and trust the scheme. You do that and you will make plays within the scheme,” he said.
It isn’t easy to get through to the players all the time.
“It’s a process,” Mitchell said. “Hopefully throughout camp and summer work you are putting them in adverse situations where you are trying to create a game-like environment. But you put 66,000 people out there when you screw up, you’ve just got to get back on the horse, trust in your technique and say ‘Here we go.’
“You have to know you are going to make the majority of plays in comparison to the receiver.”
Even in the classroom Mitchell tries to pressure his cornerbacks.
“Everything is designed to put them on the spot,” he said. “It’s not a shock and awe type of approach. It’s one which if you can sit up in front of your peers and dictate impromptu exactly what your responsibilities are quick as this (Mitchell snaps his fingers), you should be able to stand up to your responsibilities in front of 66,000 people.
“That’s how I teach it,” he continued. “I don’t just give them everything they need. They’ve got to give me some feedback, be the player-coach in the room we are in because if you are the player-coach you have an understanding that there’s different moving parts to this game.
“Once they grasp that, once they have been put on the spot and know how to react, then they can feel comfortable. I do that in the classroom. On the field will take care of itself.”
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NOTES: WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson celebrated his 37th birthday Saturday … Tickets for West Virginia’s Sept. 20 matchup with the Oklahoma Sooners will go on sale to the public through the Mountaineer Ticket Office on Monday, Aug. 11, at 9 a.m. Tickets are $80 each and will be available online at WVUGAME.com or by calling 1-800-WVU GAME.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel