By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
A year ago West Virginia University’s defense — especially on the back end — was a disaster, the kind that becomes a primetime miniseries.
We could, of course, recite a string of statistics, but really when you have given up 4,078 passing yards and 38 touchdowns no further details are needed. Let us just say that everyone understands how bad it really was, especially those who went through it, many of whom return this year.
However, as defensive coordinator Keith Patterson notes, “having a lot of people back is not necessarily a good thing.”
Certainly not if they are going to play the way they did a year ago, but if not much has changed with the personnel, much has changed in those who will teach them and in their approach to pass defense.
Patterson is the new coordinator. Tony Gibson is back with the safeties after testing the waters in Michigan and at Pitt, and Brian Mitchell comes on the scene to take over the cornerbacks, who patrolled much of the scorched earth last season.
Make no mistake, the entire defense knows what transpired, so much so that every so often during the offseason they took a peek at the statistics.
“(Defensive lineman Shaq) Rowell said he looks at the stats to remind him. He says it motivates him,” said returning cornerback Broderick Jenkins. “If it doesn’t motivate you, I don’t think you are in the right mode of thinking. If you’re complacent with that, you’re not getting any better.
“A good way to put it is this is where we were last year; this is where we need to be. You don’t want to stay the same. You don’t want to go down. You want to get better.”
And it’s up to Mitchell, who comes in after having been defensive coordinator at East Carolina, having spent four years coaching secondary in the Big 12 before that and with NFL experience.
He knows how he plans to change things and erase last year from the corners’ minds.
“The best thing these kids could have happen for them is have a new coordinator. It’s unfortunate what happened last year, but a new coordinator is giving them a different direction than they went in last year,” he said.
“Then you bring in two new secondary coaches. Now you almost have a clean break from what the situation was last year. Even though fans are going to remember it, kids don’t forget it, but they don’t look to the past for development and growth and things we’re working on right now.”
Patterson puts his approach to changing things this way:
“In January we started working on the mind way before the body. It’s a mental game. It’s a game of passion.
“Even from the standpoint of what do you represent when you play? When you take that field you represent your family. You’re representing the university. You are representing your state. You are representing things that are bigger than yourself, so that ought to affect the way you prepare, the way you do everything,” Patterson continued.
“We went to Square 1 back in January, and we built it to this point, and I am very proud of where we are right now. In no sense of the imagination are we where we want to be, but thank God we’re not where we used to be,” Patterson concluded.
In truth, there would be no progress if there were no mistakes, for no matter what your field, you learn from your errors.
“There has to be a starting point. It’s unfortunate the starting point is where it was last year, but we have a great scheme. Each one of these kids knows if they go out and do what they are capable of doing, they can be productive. If they give great effort, we will be on the right track,” Mitchell said.
But how do you turn them around, get them thinking right, believing in themselves when they went through an entire season that seemed to be telling them they might be better fit for playing offense than defense?
“You build on simple successes,” Mitchell said, going into his Motivation 101 lecture. “You don’t put the mark so far out there that they can’t attain it. It’s all going to be based on trust, care and commitment. Those are the three things I talk to my kids about.
“Do you trust the techniques I’m giving you?
“Do you care about your teammates? Do you care about me as much as I care about you?
“Are you committed to the cause day in and day out?
“You can give them simple successes, drills and fundamentals that they can accomplish and build great trust and confidence in those young men.”
And each day, each practice, you add to the degree of difficulty, to the degree of complexity.
“The confidence isn’t going to come from making the plays,” Mitchell said, somewhat surprisingly. “It will come from knowing my progression is the same every time. My techniques match the scheme, down after down, play after play. Then they will be able to make plays.
“You are not going to make plays on individual challenges. It is a team sport for a reason.”
The best thing Mitchell and Patterson have going for them is a hunger to succeed in the athletes.
“No one wants to have a season like last year, especially after the year before that and the year before that, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles,” Jenkins said. “So we try to stay focused and keep that chip on our shoulder and go forward.
“Being a corner, I learn from the mistakes. Everyone is going to get beat. Even Deion Sanders got beat. So as far as something like that happening, that’s life. Success isn’t a straight line. It’s a zig-zag line. Things like that are going to happen. You have to get back in the right direction.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.