If there is one unit that could single-handedly make or break the 2022 season for West Virginia football, it’s the secondary. It’s the unit most often cited as the reason for not trusting West Virginia this year and easily the unit with the biggest question marks on their team.
But there is a positive to be taken with question marks. The answer isn’t actually known. While it would be pretty incredible for a unit seemingly thrown together this off-season to be a strength on the team, it’s certainly not impossible.
To put it bluntly, you’d rather have an unknown unit than a known liability.
Right now, the starting secondary is Charles Woods and Andrew Wilson-Lamp at cornerback, Davis Mallinger at SPEAR, Aubrey Burks at free safety and Marcis Floyd at CAT. The listed backups are Rashad Ajayi and Wesley McCormick at cornerback, Jasir Cox or Naim Muhammad at SPEAR, Hershey McLaurin at free safety and Malachi Rufin.
For those of you wondering, SPEAR is not a position that is used by every college program and is unique to West Virginia. It is essentially a combination of an slot cornerback and in-the-box safety, as described by former SPEAR Tykee Smith.
Neither is CAT which in it’s simplest terms is another safety.
Woods is the only returning starter for the team, albeit a very good one. He was just named along with 85 other players to the Bronko Nagurski watch list which is awarded to the best defensive player in college football.
Besides Woods, thankfully three of their other current listed starters are returning members of the program. With Wilson-Lamp and Mallinger being redshirted last season, only Burks joins Woods with significant experience as the sophomore appeared in six games last year before an injury ended his season.
I said thankfully not to discourage the transfers or incoming freshman, but to highlight that players with a year on the team, regardless of playing time experience, are already more familiar with the defensive schemes and system. It helps to be able to replace players who left your program with internal players, at least in the early part of the season.
Speaking of the external additions, Cox highlights the group of transfers coming in after he played 47 games across four seasons, starting the last two, as a linebacker for FCS powerhouse North Dakota State University.
He’s coming off the best season of his career with a career-highs in interceptions (three), pass deflections (five – tied), tackles (58), sacks (1.5), tackles for loss (three) and forced fumbles (one – tied).
He’s been moved to SPEAR, which is a perfect fit for him considering the type of linebacker he thrived as at NDSU. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him as the starter by season’s end, and that’s not intended as an insult to current starter Mallinger.
Other than that, Floyd obviously stands out as an impactful new addition given that he is already slated to start. Floyd comes from Murray State and had 40 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions last season.
The secondary is not just the difference maker of the season because of the unknowns on its’ end though. It’s also because of the known talent of the quarterbacks they will be tasked with facing this year.
Here are the quarterback units and the starter that West Virginia is set to face that are also ranked inside Phil Steele’s top 61 in college football. For comparison, West Virginia’s unit led by J.T Daniels is No. 36 in the ranking.
No. 18 Oklahoma (Dillon Gabriel), No. 19 Pittsburgh (Kedon Slovis), No. 31 TCU (Chandler Morris), No. 32 Texas Tech (Tyler Shough), No. 33 Oklahoma St. (Spencer Sanders), No. 35 Kansas State (Adrian Martinez) and No. 60 Texas (Quinn Ewers).
Now, the wide receiver unit rankings. For comparison sake, West Virginia’s wide receiver unit did not crack the top 61.
No. 6 Texas, No. 9 TCU, No. 24 Oklahoma, No. 51 Texas Tech and No. 55 Pittsburgh.
That’s five of their 12 opponents with both a top 61 quarterback room and wide receiver units. In addition to that they face two more teams with top 61 quarterback rooms, but without such wide receiver units.
It’s extremely important for the secondary to be, at the very least, decent this season. With so many unknowns, it remains a possibility but it is essentially a necessity for the team to finish with a record above their commonly projected win-loss total of 6-6. The play of the team’s secondary can make or break the season for West Virginia.