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March 19, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN - Cornerbacks live life on an island

MORGANTOWN — When coaches are out recruiting cornerbacks, they check their size and speed, carefully watch their footwork, check out their hands and even go so far as to check out their intelligence.

But more important than all of that, perhaps, is the attitude a cornerback brings to the table.

If you could put a finger on the No. 1 asset, it would be cockiness.

In Broderick Jenkins and Pat Miller, West Virginia has two perfect examples.

“It’s all about confidence,” Miller admitted after an early spring practice. “You’ve got to be cocky.”

“The worst thing a cornerback can do is put his head down and not fight back after he’s been beat,” Jenkins admitted. “You are going to get beat sometimes, but you can’t let them see it bothers you.”

See, cornerback is like no other position on the defense. The nose guard is caught up in a landscape of humanity, a safety does his thing and you don’t know if he did right or wrong. A linebacker may be rushing, may be covering, may be just playing to stop the run ... but you really don’t know which.

A cornerback?

“You play corner, it’s you against the receiver,” Miller said. “Do bad, everyone knows it. Do good, they know that, too, because you are out there on an island.”

Truth is, cornerbacks often get blamed for big plays that aren’t their fault, plays in which they are in Cover 2 and they turn a receiver over to a deep safety. If the safety blows the coverage it appears the receiver beat his corner, one on one, and is running along for a touchdown.

“There’s a lot of green out there,” Jenkins noted.

And if you are in man coverage, you have to cover it all, always at a disadvantage, for the receiver knows the play, knows where he’s going, knows where the quarterback is going, while you are simply reacting.

“You have to trust yourself and trust your technique,” Miller said.

More now than ever, really, for the Mountaineers are moving into a pass-happy conference with a number of teams who will throw 40 and 50 times in a game, much the same way they do, the idea being to make one of those cornerbacks blow an assignment here or a play there.

The Mountaineer corners know as they go through the spring that a big challenge lies ahead.

They are ready for it, ready because Jenkins is in his final season and Miller in his next to last. They, like all corners, have learned through their own mistakes.

It happens to every cornerback. If anyone wants to think back to Brandon Hogan’s early days at WVU, converted from quarterback, he spent a good bit of his first season looking at the backside of receivers, but with coaching and experience he wound up an NFL player.

Miller went through the same thing, but it never fazed him, the necessary cockiness telling him he was a natural.

“In high school I knew I belonged,” he said. “I never thought I couldn’t make it.”

And Jenkins certainly wasn’t about to let any momentary setbacks derail him.

“I look at it as me playing for my future, for a chance to help my family,” he said.

He admits his family struggled to make it while he was growing up, that money was scarce and the situation not exactly “Father Knows Best.”

He sees what lies ahead in the NFL and he’s driven to get there, to escape and bring his family with him.

He wishes he could do it for everyone.

“There’s too many people down there,” he said.

A new defense that is being introduced this year won’t provide big changes for the cornerbacks. They still have to cover, cover, cover in a league that has become pretty adept at breaking receivers loose.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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