WVU Football: Who will emerge in Tony Gibson’s secondary?

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 02: Running back Gump Hayes
PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 02: Running back Gump Hayes /

WVU football enters the 2017 season hoping to build on their efforts from 2016, which included a Top 40 scoring defense; coordinator Tony Gibson was rewarded with a new deal shorty thereafter.

It’s not every season that Tony Gibson possesses a top-flight player in the secondary. Aside from the electrifying Karl Joseph’s career, Rasul Douglas’s 2016 campaign was one of the best in the Gibson-era. His 70 tackles were the most from any player in the defensive backfield for West Virginia, and his eight interceptions were tied for most in the entire country; he added eight more pass-breakups.

Eye-popping numbers and game-altering plays made Douglas one of the most decorated corners in the country. He was named first-team All-Big 12, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and received an invite to the Reese’s Senior Bowl – quite the ending to a storied journey for Douglas in Morgantown.

The Mountaineers are left replacing 85 percent of the interceptions they forced in 2016, but welcome the impact of Dravon Askew-Henry’s return with open arms. Missing this past season with a season-ending injury, Askew-Henry will inject some much-needed stability to the lineup. The senior from Aliquippa, Pa., started every single contest his freshman and sophomore seasons in Morgantown – all 26 games.

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More importantly, stability in the secondary makes other player’s more comfortable and free to play well – especially if that player is as talented as Kyzir White.

White stuffed the stat sheet his first season for the Mountaineers: 58 total tackles (47 solo, 7 TFL), 5 passes defensed, 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Another year in Gibson’s 3-3-5 stack should not only elevate his team’s success, but also influence his own draft stock for the future.

In four of the last six NFL Drafts, a WVU player was selected in the first 15 picks of the first round: Bruce Irvin – 15th overall in 2012, Tavon Austin – 8th overall in 2013, Kevin White – 7th overall in 2015 and Karl Joseph – 14th overall in 2016. There’s obviously a blueprint for success within Gibson’s system (and Dana Holgorsen’s grand scheme if we’re being honest), and Kyzir White’s physicality and stature are what NFL coaches dream about.

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Standing a lanky 6’2″, the 220-pounder earned All-Big 12 Second-Team honors from ESPN.com after starting in 12 games for the ‘Eers. Quarterbacks strolled to the line of scrimmage in 2016 seeking out No. 13 (Rasul Douglas) and hoping to avoid him, with little success. In 2017, finding White’s No. 8 will be the first read for many on the offense upon breaking the huddle, running backs and wide receivers in addition to the signal-caller; White’s versatility is must-see TV, which includes a prime time season opener against Virginia Tech. Sunday, September 3.

AMES, IA Ð NOVEMBER 26: WR Trever Ryen of Iowa State is tackled by safety Kyzir White of WVU on November 26, 2016 in Ames, Iowa. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)
AMES, IA Ð NOVEMBER 26: WR Trever Ryen of Iowa State is tackled by safety Kyzir White of WVU on November 26, 2016 in Ames, Iowa. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images) /

Askew-Henry and White are expecting to expand on their already blossoming roles, but it’s the other positions that need addressing.

JuCo transfer Hakeem Bailey and freshman West Virginia-native Derrek Pitts impressed in the Gold-Blue spring game, their first chance to play in front of Mountaineer Nation. The more experienced Bailey made two tackles and had one pass breakup, while the younger Pitts recovered a fumble and showed flashes of great play-making ability.

Elijah Battle is another JuCo player shoving his name into the conversation at corner back. Although he only registered three starts last year, the 5’11” New Jersey-native made an impression on the coaching staff, playing both defensively and on special teams.

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The return of Dravon Askew-Henry, an emergence from Kyzir White, and any combination of Bailey, Battle and Pitts should suffice to compete in the secondary early on. Not many were expecting Rasul Douglas to break out in 2016, why can’t something similar happen this coming fall?