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How West Virginia is playing top 10 defense

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West Virginia has built an impressive defense around one of the nation's best secondaries.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Most of the strategic trends that are developed in football come into existence due to necessity. Teams take what they have on the roster and try to do what they can to put them in position to win. When their experimentations go well, other teams will realize new ways to utilize similar talents on their own rosters.

What often results is that the new way will become trendy, other coaches will learn how the new tricks of the trade, and it will be commonly assumed that the new way is THE way.

In fact, the major lesson is not necessarily that the new way is THE way so much as that it's the best way for particular teams.

For most teams in college football, the ideal way to play great defense that has been modeled by many championship programs is to build the defense around the play up front in the trenches. But when you glance at the roster in Morgantown you don't see a particularly intimidating list of DL, nor many LBs in their 3-3-5 defense that can really get after the QB and force opposing offensive coaches to carefully game plan their protection schemes.

What you do see is a starting group in the secondary that is exceptionally versatile, blooded by experience, and setting the tone for the Mountaineers as they pace the Big 12 in defense.

The players who make it all happen

What really stands out about this Mountaineer secondary is how versatile all of the players are. This isn't an instance where scheme meets fit and brilliance occurs as a result, each of these players allow DC Tony Gibson different options for how he wants to deploy them to frustrate and confuse offenses.

Cornerback Daryl Worley, 6'1" 198, Junior

Worley might be the best pure coverage player for the Mountaineers although there's competition for "best" anything in this secondary. His size makes him very difficult to get a good match-up against for opposing offenses and he's equally adept coming up and playing press-man coverage or dropping into a deep zone.

Bandit safety Karl Joseph, 5'10" 196, Senior

Joseph lines up to the boundary (hence the letter B "bandit" designation) for West Virginia and is the fiercest hitter on the team and one of the best run-support DBs in the entire conference with YouTube highlights featuring names like "Karl Joseph kills a man in Texas."

Joseph is a four year starter for Gibson and consequently has picked up a lot of techniques and tricks over the years besides running and hitting people at full speed without also killing himself. He can play press coverage on a slot, play underneath zone, or play a variety of deep zone positions.

Free safety Dravon Henry, 5'11" 198, Sophomore

Henry got his start last year as a true freshman, which wasn't terribly surprising since he might have been the most athletic safety of his class in the entire Big 12. He's primarily a deep middle defender for the Mountaineers in their cover 1 and tampa-2 coverages but they'll also often drop him into a shallow "rat" technique and use him to rob the middle of the field when they blitz.

He's still a pup in this secondary who is around the ball less often than the others but the amount of ground he covers in his pre-snap disguises play a big part in confusing opposing QBs.

Strong safety K.J. Dillon, 5'10" 196, Senior

Dillon plays a position that's often that of a nickel back playing underneath zones or man coverage on a slot receiver but he'll also drop into a deep zone or blitz the edge based on the call. For many defenses he'd be the the most physical hitter on the field but at West Virginia that honor goes to Joseph.

Cornerback Terrell Chestnut, 5'11" 188, Redshirt Senior

Chestnut barely gives much ground to Worley either in deep coverage or in playing man coverage either underneath deep zone defenders or without them in the Mountaineers zero-safety pressures.

Like everyone else in this secondary, he's willing to come up and hit people which lends to their overall effectiveness in limiting big plays and moving players around to different positions to disguise coverages and bait QBs into making bad decisions.

Making it happen

There are strengths and weaknesses to every style of coverage and a Big 12 defense in a given year will inevitably face a passing offense that is good at attacking each type of coverage at some point in the grueling, round robin schedule the league plays.

There are two limits to having a full, thick defensive playbook with coverage options for limiting every type of passing concept and attacking every kind of QB. One is the limitation of practice time, installing the different coverages and techniques is time consuming if a defense wants to do them well. The other is the specific limitations of the players. While your starting corner might be good at playing off coverage perhaps he's not as good in press man, or vice versa. The safeties may be capable enough at dropping deep and firing downhill but does their athleticism also translate to dropping down over a slot and turning and running with them?

Because West Virginia has experience and versatility at every DB position, they can afford to carry a lot of coverages into every game and execute them well. The upshot is that they can play great situational defense against a wide variety of offenses and also disguise how they are doing it.

Their base defense is to play three-deep/five-under zone, a max coverage call that is becoming increasingly popular in today's game as teams have realized that spread offenses are getting the ball out too quickly to always rely on a pass rush and that they instead need to erase the QB's options by flooding his vision with zone droppers.

The Mountaineers play this coverage like a tampa-2 defense, except the extra man in coverage underneath allows them to defend the shallow middle zone:

Here you see strong safety K.J. Dillon slowly dropping back before the snap and then getting great depth into a deep 1/3 zone drop before breaking on a seven route (a favorite cover 2 beater) and breaking it up.

The Mountaineers will play this coverage with every possible combination, using any of their five defensive backs in either a deep 1/3 zone or in underneath coverage which makes it very easy for them to disguise who will be where:

Before the snap it looks like free safety Henry will be playing two deep over the top of cornerback Terrell Chestnut, who inches up late before dropping into a deep 1/3 zone. The QB sees Henry dropping towards the middle and tries to attack Chestnut only to find that he's safely over the top of the receiver and the attempt to attack him with a fade routes results in an interception.

The dangers of playing zone, even well-disguised max coverage zones such as this one, come when facing a QB that can punish the intermediate areas between the underneath and deep defenders when afforded time to throw by a three-man rush.

To keep QBs like that off their game, the Mountaineers have a variety of man coverage calls. If they still want to lean conservative they can play match-up zone underneath with one or two deep zone safeties (and again, it's hard to be sure which DBs those will prove to be) and an extra pass-rusher:

The extra pass-rusher is often delayed as he'll allow the defensive end to engage the tackle and then look to get wide around the edge when there's no one there to pick him up as Kwiatkowski does here. If West Virginia wants to make it five pass-rushers rather than four they'll just send another linebacker and replace him with a safety while playing a single deep zone defender.

Finally, there are the man-blitzes which are probably the most devastating part of the Mountaineer arsenal. In lieu of having a dominant pass-rusher who can consistently win 1-on-1 match-ups with an OL, West Virginia will instead opt to attack protections by simply outnumbering them.

They have a few different varieties that mostly involve blitzing all three linebackers and leaving their secondary to handle the five offensive skill players man to man.

If one of the five offensive skill players stays back to protect the QB then the extra DB may have instructions to either rob the QB's eyes by sitting in the middle hot route zones or else joining the fray and looking to pick up a sack. With Dillon they'll often send him off the edge while a safety dropping down like Henry may instead play the "rat" role robbing underneath or drop into a deep zone.

Here's an example of a zero blitz with Henry serving as a "rat" underneath looking to pick up the RB or else rob slants over the middle if he's in protection.


While the Mountaineers play a 3-3-5 defensive scheme that is increasingly popular for combating the spread, not every 3-3-5 is created the same. For some teams the three DL are the featured players and the defensive coach is looking to lean on their abilities or create opportunities for them to control the game. Other squads may rely on the talents of the LBs, but for this West Virginia team the six players they utilize up front are basically all role players that just look to complement what DC Tony Gibson can accomplish with his secondary.

For another 3-3-5 team to employ all of the different coverages or to bring frequent zero blitzes would invite disaster, but Gibson is confident enough in his secondary and ability to make situational calls to attempt this aggressive approach.

Last year the Mountaineers finished their year ranked 41st in defensive S&P, now they are about to take their current ranking of 9th into Norman, OK to face the Baker Mayfield and the Sooners' new Air Raid offense. If their secondary is sturdy enough to carry the weight of the defense on their shoulders and win this game then the Mountaineers just might have a chance at surviving a road schedule that includes trips to Ft. Worth, Waco, and Manhattan and compete for the Big 12 crown.

If not they should at least make things interesting for the other contenders and perhaps inspire another team, wisely or not, to look to build a similar defense around the secondary. If they do, they'd better make sure they have some good players back there first.