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Cross-training the WVU Defense: Preparing for the NFL

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Seven practices. That’s what it has taken for new co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach ShaDon Brown to evaluate his options. Upon his hiring in February 2021, Brown set to work moving the pieces around.

His prior stints at Wofford, Army, Colorado-Boulder and, most recently, Louisville set him up to view his new crop of West Virginia players as versatile, an option that former defensive backs coach Jahmile Addae hadn’t prioritized. Brown’s wealth of experience on the defensive front is crucial to appreciating the fresh perspective he brings to head coach Neal Brown’s Mountaineer roster.

“When I got here in the spring, I think a large part of the evaluation was just getting to know each and every young man personally,” he said. “I think you can not ever go into a situation and not get to know the players before you start coaching them, so that was kind of the main thing going into the spring. I thought we built some camaraderie there during the spring with them getting to know me and how I coach and my style.”

With the depth chart having developed over the offseason, Brown approached his first season with the Mountaineers energetically. Going into fall camp, he was working with both a host of familiar names, as well as new faces with something to prove. The influx of lowerclassmen and transfers to the WVU secondary isn’t daunting for him though. In fact, he encouraged the diversity; with fresh faces comes the ability to eliminate the class hierarchy and replace it with effective communication.

“We’ve mixed and matched guys and tried to get a freshman in there playing beside a senior, so now the communication is a little bit better,” he said. “They can also learn from those opportunities because they have an older guy that now, when they come off to the sideline, ‘Hey man. We’re supposed to check this or do this.’

For Brown, slotting his players into a depth chart isn’t as much position-specific as it is about getting the best players on the field. He said that it doesn’t matter to him if lowerclassmen like sophomore Daryl Porter Jr. and transfers like Charles Woods and Scottie Young are as fresh to the playbook as he is. If they’re leading the production, Brown says that they deserve to play. That requires reworking the norm, cross-training off the bat… and Brown is aptly prepared.

He is keen on moving the building blocks around, diversifying practice reps for all his positions. In 2015, he spent time in the NFL’s minority coaching program, working with the Carolina Panthers’ defensive backs. He brought that knowledge forward, to the work he does now.

“You’re not just going to be locked in at corner,” he said of moving his room around. “You’re going to be developing a different skillset. Every kid you recruit wants to play where? The NFL. Well, what the NFL is looking for is one simple thing. They’re looking for guys that can be cross-trained, can play multiple positions, and that are versatile. If you can show that in college, that ups your stock on Draft Day.”

In order to get the ball rolling on that process, you have to play heads-up football. Moving the slots around doesn’t work without acknowledging the inherent difficulties of teaching one player three different positions. Brown gives a nod to his talent for their ability to adapt.

“Right now, I think Alonzo Addae can play multiple positions. I think Charles Woods can play multiple positions. I think Scottie Young can play multiple positions,” he said.

“One of the things that allows these guys to play multiple positions is that you’ve got to be able to retain information. I always try to make sure that if I move a guy and let him play multiple spots, can he retain information and can he still be at his best when he gets moved back to that other spot? It’s no good if you move a guy around and then he goes to his original spot and he’s lost. I try to make sure they can handle it mentally.”

That heightened football acuity comes with the expectation of quick, silent fixes. Porter Jr. is a perfect example.

Of Porter Jr.’s coachability, Brown said, “The thing that I think has been more glaring for me for him that I see is an attention to detail. A focus every day to be great. He’s one of those young men. He can come and sit in this room for two hours and you’d never hear him. You’d never see him, because he doesn’t say a word. He just works.”

That silent patience is working for Porter Jr. Brown says that although he’s getting reps with the twos now, the potential exists to see him move up to the ones this season.

“I’d say if we had seven practices, Daryl’s had probably six really good ones, and Daryl’s making plays. Daryl’s running with the 2s right now, but I rotate him in with the 1s every now and then. He could easily be a starter for us,” Brown said.

For Illinois transfer Charles Woods, the same quiet adaptability applies.

“Charles really matured,” Brown said. “Coming here from Illinois State, he played a lot of ball. He was an FCS All-American. He’s a very heady guy. He’s a, what I like to call a, ‘Tell me once’ kind of player.

“You can coach him up one time on a mistake and he’s got it. He can move to another spot and he’ll have a mistake and one time he hears it, he’s got it. He’s able to move around and he understands concepts. He’s created more depth and he’s created more competition in the room.”

Diversifying reps allows for freedom in the depth chart. Guys who are effectively defensive utility position players are crucial to Brown’s end goal.

“If you say, ‘I have two backups,'” he said. “Well, you have four now, because a guy can play multiple spots.”

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