By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
When spring practice, which picks up again this week after spring break, started back three weeks ago, the man very much on the spot at West Virginia University was Keith Patterson, who had been promoted to defensive coordinator prior to last December’s embarrassing bowl loss to Syracuse.
He had taken over the worst defense in WVU history, a defense that he felt had to be forgotten before any steps forward could be taken.
“Everyone has a clean slate,” he said before the first practice was held. “There are two new coaches coming in on defense. Every day is a new day. That’s where the emphasis is.”
He was starting over, which meant new schemes, new personnel, new coaches, new practice drills … in ways it was like a convicted felon being given a pardon but being released with the knowledge that he could not go on behaving as he had before he was convicted,.
The most obvious group of offenders a year ago were the cornerbacks, for the were stationed out on an island in view of 60,000 fans and a nation of ESPN watchers, getting badly beaten game after game.
It was a team with an offense that included at least three, probably four and maybe more NFL players, that passed for an incredible 4,292 yards and that scored a school record 513 points.
But as good as the offense was is as bad as the defense, giving up just 16.5 fewer yards per game passing while allowing an incredible 14.7 yards per completion.
And while scoring 513 points, they gave up 495 … and they were actually outscored in league play 390 to 357.
The defense was a cesspool of ineptitude from the coaching to the players’ performances, and now Patterson, who served as co-coordinator and linebacker coach, sort of a silent partner to coordinator Joe DeForest last year, to orchestrate the changes, he is expecting new cornerback coach Brian Mitchell and safety coach Tony Gibson to make the chicken salad.
Mitchell, who has a background of playing in the NFL and as defensive coordinator a year ago at East Carolina, where he lost his job, echoed Patterson’s approach.
“Everyone got a clean slate,” Mitchell said. “Yeah, I’m going to go back and watch film. I want to know weaknesses and strengths, but we went into the offseason six or seven weeks ago and gave everyone a clean slate and said, ‘Let’s move forward.’ We put last year’s experience in the rearview mirror.”
He is confident he knows the proper approach.
“I know what it takes to develop corners, and the No. 1 thing for corner play is you need a group of fearless players out there,” Mitchell said.
He sounds like Franklin D. Roosevelt in his approach to cornerback play — “All we have to fear is fear itself.”
He understands that part of playing cornerback is understanding that there are going to be moments when you are beaten.
“You’re going to get beat, and everyone in the stands is going to know it and everyone on national TV is going to know it,” Mitchell said. “What are you going to do on the next play? You can go out there and hang your head and continue the process and stay down, or you can get right back on the horse and go compete and make the play the next time. It’s on you.”
That, along with the new approach and attitude that Patterson is trying to install, has caught the attention of the defense.
“With coach Patterson, we got to touch on it during the bowl game,” cornerback Brodrick Jenkins said. “He gave us an insight of what it is going to be and what we have to look forward to. Now that we have seen it, he is just an old-fashioned coach that wants you to run to the ball and give effort and everything else will take care of itself.”
It’s the players’ job to buy in, and it’s the coaches job to find — or develop — players capable of handling Big 12 receivers, which is a whole different ball game from what they saw in the Big East, where maybe you had one key receiver to worry about.
If Jenkins comes back with a lot of experience, the rest of the cornerback crew did get a chance as they struggled a year ago to find capable players.
Terrell Chestnut, who has a chance to become a starter, is out with injury for the spring, but a year ago Ishmael Banks and Nana Kyeremeh along with Jenkins and Chestnut started games, and Rick Rumph played a lot.
Vernon Davis, who transferred from Miami and sat out last year, is expected to make huge strides forward during the spring along with redshirt freshman Brandon Napoleon.
There is strong competition for jobs. Banks, for example, started four games a year ago but most of them were at safety due to injuries, proof of his versatility. It’s expected that Mitchell will wind up using a lot of corners rather than a fewer number taking more reps.
“We’re going to have to do it by committee until guys get position mastery,” Mitchell said. “No one guy has stepped two steps ahead of the rest of the group. ... We’re working on simple successes. One day it might be stance and start. The next day may be effort. The next day may be, ‘Let’s master technique in Cover 2.’ Overall, my goal hopefully by the end of spring is to have a confident group of individuals.”
Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.