MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The “quarterbacks of the defense” are in good hands, according to safeties coach Dontae Wright. In his second season with the Mountaineers, Wright came into 2021 fall camp with his sights set on prioritizing communication and confidence, both of which he’s seen improve tenfold.
With the offseason loss of All-Big 12 First Team SPEAR Tykee Smith to Georgia, the safeties took a hit. Coming off a superb defensive pressure in 2020, one which lead the entire nation in pass defense and ranked no. 4 in total defense, Wright understood that he had to regroup. 2021 left him with only three seniors (Alonzo Addae, Sean Mahone, and Scottie Young), redshirt sophomore Kerry “KJ” Martin Jr., and a full docket of freshmen.
“You need Scottie, Alonzo, and Sean to work together and know that they’re ahead of things,” he said. “They have to play some reps together so they get that cohesiveness, but I try to mix and match every single period, at least one set where a young guy goes with an older guy. You can not imagine how much difference that makes.”
He expects a lot from redshirt senior Addae, who spent last season as the Mountaineers’ second leading tackler with 66 stops. Mahone, a fellow redshirt senior, was also up there, finishing with 54 tackles, including 34 solo stops, one interception, four pass breakups, and a fumble recovery. These two, in particular, are slated to lead the defense, locking down the backfield. Arizona transfer Scottie Young completes Wright’s seniority; although the Sept. 4 game against Maryland will only be his second game in a Mountaineer uniform, Wright sees him as a vocal leader.
“They’re a fun group to coach,” Wright said. “They’re a fun group to be around. They’re extremely talented… Effort is never an issue with this group because of the leadership that we have with Alonzo and Sean and Scottie, who do a great job of pushing the group and understanding what our standards are. What we live by. They work really, really hard.”
While he has three strong seniors in place, he doesn’t rely on them as much as mentors as equal competitors. The two’s, freshmen Davis Mallinger, Aubrey Burks, and Saint McLeod are strong competition for the older lot and get reps just the same.
“Davis. Aubrey. Saint,” Wright said. “Right now, they’re the closest ones to being able to maybe help us on defense as depth guys so that Alonzo and Scottie don’t have to play every single snap. I can throw in there Charles Woods because right now, he’s Scottie’s back-up. If we had to play tomorrow, Charles Woods would be his back-up. He’s been an extremely bright spot both at corner and at the SPEAR position for us.”
Woods, an Illinois State transfer, is expected to contribute immediately, but he’s been getting used to the play speed. Coming from an FCS school, the focus for his development has been gaining speed and adjusting to the pace of the game. Since he’s been in Morgantown, Wright has seen a huge improvement of his mentality and confidence.
“Charles Woods is an awesome human being,” Wright said with a smile. “He’s a great football player because he’s extremely intelligent. You can tell him one time exactly what you want him to do and he can go out there and do it.
“He doesn’t have to go to the meeting room and study it for 15, 20 minutes. He can go out immediately and do that. He’s a playmaker in coverage, obviously because he’s a corner. He’s willing to be physical, and I’ll keep harping, but he’s extremely smart.”
Wright has prioritized including freshmen and transfers into the mix, but it doesn’t come without a confidence boost for those veterans who have become mainstays in the Mountaineer secondary. When one of the older players’ confidence begins to naturally ebb and flow, specifically during risky play reps, Wright takes it upon himself to encourage them individually.
“Last year was a little tougher because they didn’t know me,” he said. “Now, they’ve gotten to know me and built the trust. We truly care about each other. Now, it makes it easier for those guys to go out and have that confidence, because they know I’m not just saying, ‘I believe in you.’
“They know that I truly, truly do, and then they go out there and take chances and don’t worry about me being mad if they make a mistake or miss a play that they’re trying to go do. You push belief into them at all times, and once they have that trust, they’ll go out there and have that confidence.”
Wright said that he took it personally when Mahone expressed having confidence issues coming off the 2020 season he’d had.
“When you know that you believe in them, they believe in themselves even more,” he said. “Now, it’s not a big issue for guys today to believe in themselves. They have a lot of that already, but they still have the insecurities and doubts that every human does, and it’s my job, as a coach, to make sure that I instill that confidence in all of them. I think we’re to that point.”