WVU DC Gibson said defense is a mixed bag so far
MORGANTOWN — Ask West Virginia University defensive coordinator Tony Gibson what he’s seen in the Mountaineers’ summer camp thus far and you might just hear the whistle from a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western.
“Some good. Some bad. Some OK,” he said on Tuesday.
At least there was no “ugly.” But many have been wondering if the cornerback position is exactly that with UCLA transfer Denzel Fisher failing to qualify and last season’s starters —Mike Daniels and Elijah Battle — gone.
Yet read Gibson’s response when ask to list the “good” on Tuesday.
“I think Dravon (Askew-Henry), Toyous Avery, Hakeem Bailey and Derrek Pitts,” said the DC. “I really like those four right now. Josh Norwood is another guy I really like right now. I’m pretty pleased with our back end. The (defensive line) is coming together. The two new additions (Kenny Bigelow and Jabril Robinson) have really helped us and given us depth. I think Zeke (Rose) and Reese (Donahue) are doing some good things.”
Donahue is a former all-stater from Cabell Midland High School.
“Everybody else I didn’t mention,” he deadpanned.
But, yes, both projected starting corners were mentioned — including Dunbar native and South Charleston High grad Pitts.
“I’m excited about Derrek,” said WVU cornerbacks coach Doug Belk. “He’s fast. He runs well. He’s physical. He loves to play football. There’s a place for him out here. We just have to find the best place for him to fit. He’s done well at corner. I love coaching him. I love the way he competes. I think the West Virginia people will be happy to see him on the field. I think he’s going to have a big year for us.”
“He’s good,” said Bailey. “Athletic. Fast. All that.”
Pitts, a highly regarded recruit, played in 10 games last season and made nine tackles. He’s listed at the right cornerback slot at the moment in front of Keith Washington, a junior college transfer who once lettered at Michigan as a red-shirt freshman playing mostly special teams.
Redshirt juniors Bailey and Norwood are one-two on the left side. Bailey signed out of junior college in January of 2017 and played last season, finishing with 35 tackles and six pass breakups in 11 games played (three starts).
“We played (Bailey) last year out of necessity,” Gibson said. “Right now he’s had as good a summer as anybody on the team. The strength staff raved about him all summer long. He’s got confidence right now. He’s a different kid.”
Even Bailey admits he was a bit overwhelmed last season. His first game was against Virginia Tech.
“In pregame the (FedEx Field) stadium wasn’t that packed,” he said. “But when we came out, there were a lot of people there — plus the lights, because it was a night game on Sunday.”
The most he played before in junior college?
“Maybe 1,000,” Bailey said.
And in high school?
“Less than that.”
Norwood has more experience. He redshirted after signing with Ohio State and then played in 11 games for the Buckeyes during their 11-2 Fiesta Bowl season in 2016. He had eight tackles (one for loss) and a pass breakup before moving to Northwest Mississippi Community College.
“He’s a guy that brings it every single day,” Gibson said. “Just love the way he works and his attitude. He’s a guy that sticks out.”
“Hakeem is the only one with meaningful snaps here,” Belk said. “Josh has played at Ohio State. Keith has played at Michigan. But it’s a little different having to learn the system, learning what we want to do. But I feel good about the group and the competition in the room.”
Gibson has promised to get the best 11 on the field when the season begins against Tennessee on Sept. 1. That makes Norwood one to watch. The coaches have moved the Georgia native from free safety to corner. Might he end up claiming a starting spot?
Also, red-shirt sophomore Sean Mahone has been moved from corner to safety, presumably behind returning starter Kenny Robinson.
“Sean is a young guy that’s very talented,” Belk said. “We need to find him a role on the team. He’s smart. He’s a great guy. He’s been around and understands the scheme and system. We have other guys we can move around like Pitts. So having those versatile guys — corners that can play safety or corners that can play nickel — with the youth is only going to help us.”
Red-shirt junior Jordan Adams and red-shirt sophomore Jake Long, who played primarily on special teams last season, round out a six-man rotation. Junior college walk-on transfer Barry Moreland and red-shirt freshman Jaelen Gross are also around.
“Those guys are doing a heck of a job,” Gibson said. “I’m pretty pleased with them right now, and, with our receiving corps and our quarterback, they’re getting really good work in every single day. I love the way they’re competing and trying to get better. They’re playing within the scheme, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
“Coming in during the spring, we went against Will Grier,” Bailey said. “You had to be in your spot, do your job, or he was going to expose you. It’s an advantage having a quarterback like that. We go against him every day.”
Bailey, who by nature is very quiet, is trying to lead.
“I’m helping everybody,” Bailey said. “I’m challenging everybody to step up, even myself for Sept. 1. I still have to have my spot as well. That’s how I’m looking at it. We’re all out there competing.”
Also, as Gibson said, confidence isn’t in short supply.
“I like this corps better than last year’s corps,” Bailey said. “Everyone out there is competing for a starting job.”