MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – According to PFF College data, and West Virginia co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach ShaDon Brown, WVU is home to the best cornerback in the Big 12 Conference.
Charles Woods, the owner of one of the best seasons by a Big 12 cornerback ever in the eyes of PFF College, was and is expected to be the leader of the Mountaineer secondary entering this season.
Around him, however, were question marks about who would fill in the gaps made in the offseason, either through graduation or the transfer portal.
The latter, largely, is how Neal Brown and his staff went about filling those needs in the position group.
“We brought in the guys with experience by design, and we felt like we needed some older guys, because of the guys that left the program,” said ShaDon Brown. “We went out and we got two graduate transfer guys that have played a lot of football at their respective schools.”
Returning players, like Woods, are listed as starters at three of the four positions in the West Virginia secondary on the preseason depth chart.
Woods and redshirt freshman Andrew Wilson-Lamp are slated to be the team’s starting corners. Sophomore Aubrey Burks is the expected starter at free safety. Davis Mallinger, a redshirt freshman who, like Wilson-Lamp, has only appeared in four games with the Mountaineers, is the preseason starter at the SPEAR position.
Redshirt junior Marcis Floyd, who came to West Virginia this offseason, has been tabbed as one of the team’s two starting safeties, despite playing corner at Murray State.
Behind those returning players, however, is a group of talented newcomers, who not only bring experience, but also the knowledge of winning games.
“It played a big role,” said defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley. “What you’re accustomed to, culture-wise, is one thing. It definitely plays into our evaluation of those guys. … Being a part of programs that traditionally have done what the programs those guys you mentioned have done, then yes it does matter.”
Few incoming players won as many games at his previous school as Jasir Cox, a former linebacker at North Dakota State where he won 52 games and three FCS championships in four years. Cox, with a slender 6-foot 1-inch, 204-pound frame, has transitioned from the second level of the defense to the secondary. There, he provides flexibility for WVU.
“Jasir Cox is going to give us a bunch,” Neal Brown said. “Jasir can play a back safety, he can play our SPEAR, which is a nickel. He can play even an outside linebacker in some dime packages, so he gives us a lot of flexibility.”
However, it’s the incoming duo of Rashad Ajayi (Colorado State) and Wesley McCormick (James Madison) who could have the biggest impact right away, according to the head coach.
“Both transfer corners are definitely going to be factors, and they’ll push to be starters,” Neal Brown said. “They’ll play a lot.”
Ajayi and McCormick’s position coach said both are coming along well, and are picking things up quickly.
Neal and ShaDon Brown, and Lesley, have all been impressed by what both players have brought to the table, thus far. The same can be said for Cox.
As far as younger players go, redshirt sophomore Jaylen Shelton, and true freshmen Jacolby Spells and Mumu Bin-Wahad have also performed well in camp.
“Jaylen Shelton is a long guy,” ShaDon Brown said. “He’s long, and he can run like the wind, as well.”
Neal Brown stated after the team’s fifth practice that there are a lot of different ways the Mountaineers can approach things with the secondary. He added they can currently play up to six players and feel confident in the results.
Not only does it appear there is solid depth in the defensive backfield, but there also appears to be the ability to plug players into multiple positions.
“We tried to add guys that give could give us some ability to play in some different roles,” said the WVU fourth-year head coach. “We’re going to move those guys around.”
Through five practices, West Virginia’s coaching staff has been pleased with the secondary.
It’s a group that has retained knowledge from the offseason and OTA periods, and has made multiple plays on the ball in game-like situations in practice.
For ShaDon Brown, knowledge and experience go hand-in-hand.
That is why he’s confident playing in front of a sold-out crowd in the Backyard Brawl on September 1 won’t be too big of a moment for newcomers Ajayi, Cox, and McCormick, especially with the Big 12’s best cornerback in the secondary alongside them.