By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The observation was meant as a compliment, for surely there are not too many people who are going to insult West Virginia University’s hard-hitting safety Karl Joseph to his face.
But the question had been put to him, one that in many ways has been clawing away at an inquiring reporter’s mind ever since seeing him combine with Ishmael Banks for his first collegiate tackle in last year’s opener against Marshall, stopping Travon Van five yards shy of a first down on a 12-yard completion from quarterback Rakeem Cato.
The sheer power with which he hit then and now made one wonder if, indeed, a safety were more linebacker than defensive back.
Considering the reckless manner in which both Joseph and his brother in mayhem, Darwin Cook, play, one might categorize them more as a Grant Wiley than a Keith Tandy … a player charged with hitting first and worrying about the pass second.
But you worried Joseph might take that the wrong way, considering how seldom any defense back covered any receiver last year.
Joseph didn’t hesitate when the question was put to him.
“Defensive back,” he said, without hesitation, echoing the answer put forth just a few moments earlier by new safeties coach Tony Gibson when he was asked the same question. “I don’t play that close to the line of scrimmage.”
That well may be true, but, it seemed, that he and Cook often ended plays near the line of scrimmage. In fact, Joseph had 7 tackles for losses last year, Cook 3 while each recorded a sack.
If they are defensive backs, is their mentality more DB or safety?
“A little bit of both,” Joseph said. “When I get down in the box I’m more of a linebacker. When I’m back there I think pass first. When you are in the box, you have to have that kind of mindset.”
And WVU has a number of defensive alignments on running downs that bring Joseph forward as if he were another linebacker, hoping to confuse the offensive blocking and to take advantage of his powerful tackling.
“The guy we drop down into the Spur is more of a linebacker on run downs and on different personnel groupings,” is the way Gibson explained. “The other team goes to one back, and it becomes more of a nickel defense.”
But having safeties who can cover a tight end or a back or slot receiver as well as punish them after catching ball is exactly what Gibson and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson are seeking.
“Cook and Karl, they hit like linebackers, but they’re pretty skilled at covering,” Gibson said. ”They are getting better at that and understand it.”
In the Big 12 in particular, you have to play pass first. Baylor, for example, may have the conference’s best running back and a Heisman Trophy candidate, but you better not concentrate on stopping him at the expense of covering the deep pass.
“We have to defend the deep ball,” Gibson said. “What we tell the kids right now is you have to defend from the goal line back to the line of scrimmage. Don’t give up the deep, easy shots. We’ve stressed that a lot.”
And they have stressed punishing the man with the ball, in part because it makes him leery the next time he has it and in part because it has to slow down the tempo that so many Big 12 teams use to control the defense.
“We just run to the ball. If you get hit too many times, the tempo will slow down,” Cook said. “They’ll slow down real good.”
Joseph, just a sophomore, has become a quiet leader of the defense.
“Right now he knows what the linebackers are doing, what the D-linemen are doing. He’s kind of a voice back there, and that’s what we put on our free safeties. He has to be the guy who checks us into coverages,” Gibson said.
Gibson, of course, just returned to WVU after having coached for Rich Rodriguez at WVU, Michigan and Arizona with a one-year stop at Pitt when defensive coordinator Patterson was there.
That year at Pitt in 2011 gave him some familiarity with Cook, but he came to know Joseph from afar while at Arizona last season.
“When I first noticed him I was out on the West Coast and in a hotel,” Gibson said. “You know, we play so late we get to watch games on television. I saw Karl play a few games and I thought, ‘Wow! That kid is a pretty good player.’ And every time I watched West Virginia he was making plays and big hits.”
“Now I have an opportunity to come coach him. We’re fine tuning him so he can play within the system. You can’t play outside the box because you can’t give up a big throw. We’re trying to control him, make him understand everything that’s going on with the scheme, and he’s done a great job with that.”
The safety position is starting to take shape. Obviously, Joseph and Cook are starting.
“Those guys have the most game experience, really the only game experience,” Gibson said. “Moving a kid like Ricky Rumph back there gives me some depth and an opportunity to rest those guys on maybe passing situations.
“The same thing with K.J. Dillon, who will play on special teams and maybe some on defense. We’ll put him in for a play or two to rest someone.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.