By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Daron Roberts is a young coach, an engaging sort of fellow with an Ivy League degree and a Wall Street firm in his background, who coaches West Virginia University’s cornerbacks.
As such, he was smart enough to know as this season was getting under way that he would at times be counting on rather young and inexperienced players, including true freshmen, to stop some rather nasty, talented, experienced wide receivers in the Big 12 Conference, a league where offense rules all.
“As coaches, we told them before the season that this was not the Big East. We told them we go against some of the best in the country week in and week out,” he noted the other day as he took time away from Iowa State preparations to discuss trials and tribulations of the Mountaineer defense.
He wanted them to be fully aware of what was ahead and know that as young cornerbacks they were going to taste some bitter moments on the field. He just didn’t know how many that would be, the Mountaineers giving up 50 points a game in Big 12 play.
To accomplish that, he put together what he innocently called a “highlight” tape of both Brandon Hogan and Keith Tandy as freshmen, two players who would suffer many dramatic growing pains during their freshman year as they played.
“Those guys were beaten over the top by some pretty good receivers who wound up in the NFL,” he noted.
And, in the NFL, they eventually found themselves on rosters with the aforementioned Hogan and Tandy, each having grown in coverage to the point that they would make it in the NFL.
So it is hoped these players at West Virginia will grow, although their growing pains have been far magnified over those Tandy and Hogan suffered, the receivers and quarterbacks being what they are in the Big 12 and the rest of the WVU defense being equally inept.
It reached the point that to date six corners have started this season, and while it started as senior Pat Miller and junior Brodrick Jenkins, the likes of Nana Kyeremeh, Ricky Rumph, Terrell Chestnut, Avery Williams and other young corners have had to put in serious duty at key times, right up until Kenny Stills caught a game-winning pass for Oklahoma in the closing seconds Saturday.
“We don’t have anyone that has stepped up and taken control of the position,” head coach Dana Holgorsen admitted. “This is a tough league to play corner in — you have some pretty good receivers, so it is a tough league to play corner. None of the guys have stepped up and said, ‘This is my position, and I am going to make enough plays to where I am not going to be taken out of the game.’ Whether that gets established here between Jan. 1 or not, I don’t know.”
That has been disappointing ... and understandable to Holgorsen.
“A lot of them are young, and obviously you have guys like Ricky Rumph, who is a true freshman and has no business playing corner in the Big 12 at this point in his career,” Holgorsen said. “(Terrell) Chestnut has played zero snaps at corner the entire year, and we started him. He doesn’t have any business starting in this league at corner at this point in time.
“We just don’t have enough guys that can control the position and say that this is mine and we are going to make it work. Competition continues to be a challenging focus for that spot right now.”
The young corners understand they have been put into difficult situations.
“It gave me a wakeup call. I never thought D-I wasn’t D-I football, but it let me know anybody can’t just play it,” Rumph said. “You have to be a real football player. You have to know everything about the game. You can’t be just an athlete.”
“It’s definitely a challenge. I played safety in high school, and I had to learn different coverages. There’s a lot to learn,” Kyeremeh admitted.
The fact that he wasn’t even a corner in high school has made the transition even more difficult, getting used to all that is different.
“The speed of the receivers is about the hardest thing, but along with speed, there are different types of routes that you don’t see in high school. There are a lot of little things you can find on tape. It’s slow, but the more I watch receivers I’ll catch up with it.”
Meanwhile, pass after pass is completed in front of them and behind them, and each failure has to dig deeply into their mentality.
“It’s a humbling experience, but we really emphasize the fact you have to move on,” Roberts said. “We tell them, ‘Take what you learn. You saw the way a certain offense will attack you. OK, see what you did wrong, learn from it. Then by the end of the season you’ll have a lot of snaps.’”
The problem is multiplied by the idea that they don’t know how to learn, as they never had to do it in high school.
“It’s a lot different from high school football, where you just roll the ball out on Saturday morning and blow the whistle,” Roberts admitted. “They have to study receivers, to spot things in their body language. Our guys are still learning how to watch tape and spot things in it.”
It better happen, because Holgorsen admitted that he can’t go out and just bring in new bodies.
“You can say go out and find corners, but how many corners can we have on scholarship? There are scholarship limitations, and we have eight corners on scholarship right now, one of which is a senior,” he said.
“It is hard to have any more than eight on scholarship if you just do the math. It is a matter of coaching these guys up. We have three older guys that have some experience and maybe an injury or two have limited those guys a little bit, especially Brodrick (Jenkins), but those other guys and older guys are the ones you are going to have to count on.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.