Coaching changes, however smooth or necessary, always carry with them an element of uncertainty. That uncertainty is generative and typically culminates in transfers among both staff and players. Again, it’s all typical. It happens and you just ride the wave and work towards the future. Another typical fixture of coaching changes is that there are always areas of strength that help carry a program through the fog of uncertainty. For one program it might be a talented playmaker under center and, for another, it might be a host of talent manning the defensive line. For West Virginia, the regime change under Neal Brown was colored with optimism because of strength at running back and in the secondary, particularly at safety.
Look back at what I just typed about safety, now re-read this sentence. In the time it took you to do that, safety just became a glaring question mark.
All-Big 12 safety Kenny Robinson and former blue chip in-state product Derrek Pitts, Jr., as well as redshirt sophomore EJ Brown are all in the transfer portal and have played their last downs as Mountaineers.
In the last 24 hours, the news cycle about all three players has been equal parts surprising and fist-clenching. Said news cycle is evolving by the minute and details about their respective departures are going to reveal the reasons why two presumptive starters are, out of nowhere, rolling out of Morgantown. If you’re into speculation, Dominion Post’s Allan Taylor had this to say yesterday and I don’t think the story ends there. I won’t go down that rabbit hole. I’m more concerned with how Neal Brown and his staff plan to address a positional sinkhole that appeared overnight.
Of the state of the safety unit, and the secondary as a whole, there’s good news and bad. Let’s just dig deep and get the bad out of the way, first.
Losing Robinson and Pitts sucks. It’s a damn blow and it doesn’t help anything. They’re walking out the door with a large amount of experience and production, were assumed to be defensive leaders and would have anchored a stout secondary that was already trying to replace program iron man Dravon Askew-Henry. It’s worth getting upset over. The talent that is now in line to replace them is young and largely (if not entirely) untested. The 2019 slate has West Virginia going up against a quarterback lineup featuring Texas Tech’s Alan Bowman, Missouri’s Kelly Bryant, Baylor’s Charlie Brewer and two Heisman buzz-getters in former Alabama starter Jalen Hurts and Longhorns’ star Sam Ehlinger. Outside of perhaps JMU and building-from-scratch Kansas, there isn’t an easy game on the Mountaineers’ schedule and the odds just became worse.
Brown’s impact, at least in the short-term, will be hard to mete out. He was seldom used in his two years at West Virginia and it wasn’t anticipated that he was going to start at any safety spot this year. Regardless, less depth never helps. Especially when it’s a player still in the developmental stage.
While West Virginia returns multiple starters at the corner position in Keith Washington, Hakeem Bailey and Josh Norwood along with much-hyped newcomer Dreshun Miller, even skilled cornerbacks run out of gas and can’t cover the entire field. Whether a safety is playing up or down, they’re the mortar holding everything together in pass coverage and without that ever-reliable mixture of fury, grit and vision manning the soft spots downfield, the house comes crumbling down.
Maybe you get away with this kind of attrition in the Big 10. Perhaps it’s less dire in certain parts of the ACC. In the Big 12, though, where even the most wired-in defenses give up 300+ yards per game through the air, it can be downright terminal.
OK, now on to the potentially not terrible news.
Robinson and Pitts were certainly the tip of the spear at safety, but there’s potentially an arsenal of talent behind them waiting to be deployed. Kwantel Raines was an enormous get for the Mountaineers two recruiting classes ago and he’s had now two seasons to adjust to the college game. He’s a load at 6’3″ and just oozes potential. It’s finally his time and I’m buying his stock. JoVanni Stewart has played everything but D-line during his time in Morgantown, but has now found a home at SPEAR and may just be a difference-maker playing in a hybrid role. Sean Mahone is in his third year with the program and now has a clear line to meaningful minutes. The same goes with fellow upperclassman Deomante Lindsay, the lone senior at the position. Even Jake Long, who suffered a broken wrist and was sidelined all of last season, returns with a clean bill of health and can make good on the progress he had been making prior to his injury. Perhaps the biggest push will come in the form of three new arrivals in Tykee Smith, Osita Smith and 6’5″ Rashean Lynn. The former Smith is Philadelphia product with big-hit potential and the latter is a four-star Maryland native that, at 6’2″, looks scary in the open field. Then there’s Lynn, a Florida product that caught fire near the end of his recruitment and chose the Mountaineers over offers from Louisville, Oregon and others and had the option to play receiver at the next level but was sold on the idea of being a skyscraper in the defensive secondary.
So, even with the rash of players announcing their exit from the program in recent hours, there is potential. I understand that potential is a scary word and can just build people up for further letdown somewhere down the road. I use it cautiously but, nonetheless, it’s the most operative term for what the Mountaineers have at their disposal.
Never forget, it was only a few years ago that Karl Joseph started as a true freshman with mild fanfare only to go onto be the most prolific hit machine in college football before being drafted in the first round by the Oakland Raiders. The space that exists between unknown and stardom is generally measured in the five or six seconds it takes to make one incredible play. It’s not remotely outlandish to think that Raines or Smith or Stewart could become a standout this season in a relatively short amount of time.
Of course, the transfer portal not only taketh but also giveth. With Brown, Pitts and Robinson all heading elsewhere, there are now three other scholarships on the table that Neal Brown and his staff will look to fill as soon as possible. There’s already a potential target in sophomore CJ Smith who announced his intent to transfer out of Nebraska less than two days ago. Who else may raise their hand and test the waters of re-recruitment and vie for a waiver for immediate eligibility is anyone’s guess but West Virginia has won in the transfer market before and they will surely do so again. What I do know is that after recently adding Bowling Green QB Jarrett Doege and Florida State WR George Campbell, the remaining scholarships will absolutely be allocated to adding depth to Vic Koenning’s defense.
As fans, it’s our right to respond to this as we see fit. If you’re a fatalist, feel free to bug out and preach the impending apocalypse. “The sky is falling and there’s not a safety in town to catch it!” would look fantastic on a piece of poster board. Or maybe you’re more the type to rely on the unpredictability of college football and the fact that the pendulum could swing back in West Virginia’s favor as soon as tomorrow. If that’s you’re stance, I envy your stoicism.
However you might be receiving the exodus at hand, just know that football has yet to be played and there are a number of players chomping at the bit to step in and, hopefully, step up. Neal Brown certainly doesn’t seem the least bit phased, anyway. I would also urge all of you to not set the internet ablaze with accusations and assumptions about this staff and the direction the program is going. Again, there are stories underlying the recent goings-on that most of us don’t have knowledge of. Furthermore, it’s coaching changes always involve a degree of blood-letting that results in players looking for new homes. Why the safety position suddenly seems to be especially cursed, I can’t tell you.
Until real football is played and until we see what kind of team the Mountaineers field this year, try your best to keep it together. Perhaps, it’s all part of a grander plan that Neal Brown has engineered. Perhaps it’s simply the restless jitters of the college football monster as it tries to make its way through the long offseason. There is a recourse here and this new Mountaineer staff has an early opportunity to prove how resourceful they are by plugging a sizeable hole in the hull.
Opportunities are born from problems, big and small, and the one facing the players and coaches currently entrenched in the Puskar center is considerable. Let’s see what they do with it.