The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

April 15, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Secondary goes on sans Sands

MORGANTOWN — For the last few years Steve Dunlap would wake up every game day morning and find himself in one of those State Farm Auto Insurance commercials.

He’d eat his oatmeal, drink his coffee and head to the stadium, walk into the locker room and say, “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.”

Only instead of claims adjuster walking on scene to take care of the problems caused by a wreck, Robert Sands would walk into the locker room ready to make a wreck of the opposition’s offense.

This year, for some reason that never really has been adequately explained, considering the uncertainty of an NFL season, Sands opted to leave West Virginia and go into the NFL draft. It is a move that certainly could make him a millionaire some year, but this year comes with no guarantees.

Surely, he would have been an All-American had he returned to WVU, probably even improving his draft status because last year, to be honest, he was not quite as good a player as he could have been due to injuries.

But Sands saw nothing left to accomplish at WVU and decided it was more of a risk to play than to go for the cash and left school.

That left Dunlap with a void in his secondary the size of Wyoming. Asked how Sands’ departure affects him, his answer was brief and to the point.

“I’m not near as smart without Robert. I was a brilliant with him and Sidney Glover back there,” Dunlap said.

Glover was another hard-hitting, smart safety, but it was Sands who always stood above the crowd.

Why not? He had wide receiver height at 6-5, good speed and nose for the ball, all that combined with intelligence and a driving desire to succeed.

When asked if that would change things for Dunlap, the coach looked a bit amazed and said:

“What do you think? I’ll give you one guess.”

Sands allowed him to do things he’d never been allowed to do before out of the secondary.

“Robert is a unique player. Those guys don’t come along very often. I’ve been here 31 years and there haven’t been any 6-5 free safeties,” Dunlap said.

But not having Sands forces Dunlap to develop other players and create a situation that takes advantage of their unique skills.

“Every kid has strengths and weaknesses and as a coach you have to find out what they are and take advantage of the strengths and cover up the weaknesses,” he said.

One player, in particular, who he’s eager to work into Sands’ spot is Eain Smith, an experienced safety who is unable to take part in most spring drills while a shoulder injury heals.

“Eain is a really good man-to-man player. It wouldn’t bother me a bit to put him on the slot receiver. Robert wasn’t as good a man-to-man player. As far as playing zones and blitzes and covering zones, Robert was very good at that.”

Because of that, WVU’s No. 3-nationally defense was able to do a lot of untraditional things.

“We got Robert in the box a lot more last year. He’s a physical presence. We won’t do that with Eain. He is 200 and 205 pounds at the most. But we were able to use Robert as a Sam (strong side) linebacker on third down, because of a lack of linebackers we had. We were deep in safeties and wanted to get the best and fastest kids on the field. It worked pretty good.”

That is understating it. WVU was as good as any team in the country in getting off the field on third down.

“That’s a tribute to those kids. Sidney Glover played Willie linebacker on third down. Eain played the Spur and we had four corners behind them. That was a unique thing. I’ve had a lot DBs on the field at one time, but nothing like that.”

This year, though, things are different because the personnel is different — younger, less experienced, frankly less intimidating physically.

“This year we don’t have as many safeties,” Dunlap said. “Maybe we’ll come up with more pass rushers and maybe play a four-man front now. That’s how football goes.”

Smith, however, is key in everything Dunlap wants to do.

“He’s played a lot of football for us,” Dunlap said. “He’s a big deal for us on that third down team. He was out there in that slot all the time. He’s an excellent man player, plus he’s going to be healthy for a change. Every time he took a shot on that shoulder it hurt him last year, plus he had tendon damage in there, too.

“I’m kind of excited to see him when he’s healthy because he’s a fast player. He’s probably the fastest we have out there.”

Without Sands and Glover, Dunlap is back to basics.

“We’re going back to coaching young guys. That’s what we do. That’s college football. You lose guys and you have to replace them,” he said.

That means take it slow, take it easy.

“I tell the players you will decide how much we do. If you can’t do A and B, we sure aren’t going to go to C. We’re taking little baby steps and going pretty slow right now,” he said.

Email Bob Hertzel at


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