Freshmen Bring Good “Fortune” To WVU Secondary
WVU was expected to have one of the least experienced secondaries in the Big 12 following the transfers of former starters Kenny Robinson and Derrek Pitts. Things looked to be even direr ahead of the Texas game when senior safety JoVanni Stewart announced he would sit out the rest of the season and transfer in the offseason. Meanwhile, senior cornerback Keith Washington was injured late in the game against the Longhorns and ruled out shortly before kickoff against Iowa State.
While this could have been the time that the Mountaineers crumbled to a high-powered passing attack led by Brock Purdy, it was a pair of true freshmen who stepped into those vacated roles and helped hold the back end together. Without the performances of Tykee Smith and Nicktroy Fortune, there is quite a good chance that the Cyclones could have racked up video game-like numbers against the depleted WVU secondary.
Fortune, making his first career start and sixth appearance, was targeted early and often by Purdy but, for the most part, stood up to a powerful attack from the sophomore signal-caller and his receivers. After allowing a catch on the game’s very first play from scrimmage, Fortune was stellar in the first 30 minutes, making four tackles and breaking up a pass. Often covering ISU’s Tarique Milton, the freshman was challenged over the middle of the field more than once and did not allow a reception on any of those throws. His efforts were key in holding the talented Purdy to just 92 yards on 9/17 passing in the first half.
Despite the outstanding coverage from Fortune in the first half, it was his fellow freshman Tykee Smith that made a play to give WVU all the momentum it needed to get going in the opening quarter on third down and 15 from the WVU 19 yard-line, Purdy dropped back to set up a screen pass for running back Kene Nwangwu. The junior runner could not get his hands on the ball cleanly. Instead, batting it up into the air where Smith made a spectacular play to intercept the pass. The freshman was able to hold onto the ball while spinning out of a tackle and then raced the remaining 19 yards to the end zone to break a scoreless tie and put the Mountaineers up 7-0. In addition to his scoring play, Smith was active from his SPEAR position, making two tackles and providing strong support for his counterparts at cornerback.
As the third quarter began, the Mountaineer offense started with the ball but failed to do much, resulting in the defense making an early appearance to begin the second half. As the two freshman starters played their roles, another senior would make a crucial mistake that gave way to the debut of another first-year Mountaineer. As Milton sprinted down the sideline following a catch, senior cornerback Hakeem Bailey came down and laid a bone-jarring hit that could be heard around the stadium. Unfortunately for WVU, Bailey led with the crown of his helmet and the play drew a booth review for targeting. Following a brief review, targeting was called and the senior was ejected from the game. With junior college transfer Dreshun Miller still on the shelf with a leg injury, true freshman Tae Mayo remained as the only other scholarship cornerback on the roster. Despite having not played in a game yet, the Leesburg, Georgia native became the next man up in the secondary.
Even with three true freshman playing starter’s minutes in the second half, along with another in Kerry Martin, Jr. seeing significant snaps, the Mountaineer defense was able to keep the dangerous Purdy on his toes and off-balance for the remainder of the game. Entering the game with a Big 12 Conference-leading average of 315.6 passing yards per game, the Arizona native was held to just 19/30 for 229 and a touchdown and the Smith interception. With a player competing for the title of the best quarterback in the conference like Brock Purdy, the coaching staff needed a big day out of its secondary. With two true freshman starting and two more playing important snaps, they received all they could have asked for and more against Iowa State.
“I thought Nicktroy was competitive which is really good.”, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said of his first-year cornerback, “Tykee was again competitive. He made more mistakes tonight than he did last week but I thought he was competitive. In the first half, as a defense, we were competitive. We were doing enough things, scheme-wise, to kind of keep the quarterback off balance.”
It was an impressive day for WVU’s true freshman defensive backs both on the field and on the stat sheet. Tykee Smith, in just his second career start, provided stout support from his SPEAR safety position, tallying five tackles, all solo, and scoring a touchdown on his 19-yard interception return. Nicktroy Fortune made his first start in a WVU uniform and acquitted himself quite nicely. The Roswell, Georgia native finished second on the team in tackles with eight, seven of which were solo, and broke up a pass. Called upon in the second half following the ejection of Hakeem Bailey, Tae Mayo made two solo tackles of his own while covering well against a talented ISU corps of receivers.
With the chips down and multiple starters out, WVU had to call on some of its youngest team members to have a shot against the Iowa State Cyclones. While the Mountaineers were unable to pull out a win, this game proved that the future is quite bright for more than one of these true freshman defensive backs. As Tykee Smith, Nicktroy Fortune, and Tae Mayo continue to improve over the next four years, the WVU secondary looks like it has the capability to be among the Big 12’s best in the coming seasons.