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June 23, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN - Cornerbacks at a premium in Big 12 play

MORGANTOWN — Perhaps you may have noticed last January what West Virginia’s offense did to Clemson, a team filled with speed but totally unprepared to deal with the inventiveness and aerial nature of Dana Holgorsen’s offense.

It is, you see, an offense prepared to take advantage of any weakness, even in the best of defenses, as it showed last season when it ran up 533 total yards on LSU, which possessed one of the nation’s stingiest defenses.

This year, however, the shoe will be on both feet for not only will the Mountaineers be prepared to take advantage offensively of any hole a defense may have, but so, too, will the Big 12 teams who run similar, wide open offenses that run up points as if they were an NBA team.

To prepare for this, WVU has already changed defenses … something it had to do in part because the Mountaineers’ old scheme was designed for more traditional attacks and partly because Holgorsen had to bring in a new defensive staff when it became apparent that the holdovers from Rich Rodriguez and Bill Stewart’s regime were not in lockstep with the current group.

While the move into the Big 12 will put tremendous pressure on each defensive position, it is at cornerback where things will be most exposed and having good starting corners will not even cover that up for this is a league where you must often play three and maybe four corners at a time and where they will be run until they can run no more.

West Virginia knows this. Daron Roberts, who moves from coaching wide receivers last year to handling the corners this year, certainly is aware of it and he left no doubt about it on the Statewide Sportsline radio show the other night.

He saw in the Orange Bowl from his own offense what he must be trying to stop this year.

“We all understood that’s exactly what we’re going to see when we play teams in the Big 12 next year and we’re going to have to have more bodies,” he said. “Guys are running with receivers who are running 18 and 20-yard routes downfield. We are going to need reliable backups so that when we put them in there’s not a significant drop-off in play. All of our efforts have been aimed at trying to shore up that group.”

He has a decent group of corners returning with Broderick Jenkins, Pat Miller, Avery Williams and the injured Terrell Chestnut but he is also recruiting hard to bring in more quality corners. It is, really, perhaps the No. 1 priority.

“I saw a pre-draft interview with Bill Parcells and Bill Pollian,” Roberts recalled. “They talked about how offenses are throwing the ball so much more now that defenses are going to evolve to where they put three cornerbacks on the field. They’ll have a nickel package on the field when it comes to first down.  If you look at us, more than likely when we come out on the field we’ll have four wide receivers.”

Four receiver sets, to say nothing five receiver, empty backfield sets require three corners at least.

“In the Big 12, on the average offenses are getting 100 snaps a game,” Roberts noted. “That says to me a few things ... first, we need more bodies on the outside because whether it’s man to man or zone you are going to have corners running a long distance and they will have less time to rest between snaps.”

Offenses today alter the pace at which they run, often going so fast that you can’t substitute. That means not only do you need greater depth at the position than ever before, but also the players you have must be in shape to go hard for long periods of time.

“I told them, no one is going to feel sorry for you in the Big 12. No offensive coordinator is going to sit up in the box and say ‘I know this one corner has been run a lot, let’s take it easy on him.’ They’re going to go after you. They won’t feel sorry for you,” Roberts said.

The problem is, and this is one reason why offenses are so high scoring now, it’s hard to find corners who can cover, especially young ones. Anyone who has followed WVU football saw both Brandon Hogan and Keith Tandy, each NFL quality players, burned often in their first years.

This, Roberts says, is because of the degree of difficulty playing the position.

“From a physical standpoint I believe it is the most difficult position to play on the field because you are asked to cover the most athletic player on the field, the wide receiver, and do it out of a backpedal,” he said.

Often, too, you have to talk players into becoming corners, players who want to be wide receivers or players like Hogan who came in as a high school quarterback.

“Everyone wants to be a wide receiver, but I tell them to go look at the first round of NFL draft and count the corners and wide receivers and there’s always more corners because there is such a premium based on that position,” he said.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.


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