MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The biggest challenge West Virginia faced last week may prove itself to be an asset moving forward.
The Mountaineers were short-handed in the secondary against Kansas. Safety Toyous Avery was out with an injury, and cornerback Josh Norwood had to sit out the first half because of a second-half targeting foul against Texas Tech.
While the Mountaineers were fortunate to have that misfortune take place against the Big 12’s ninth-best passing offense, Avery and Norwood’s replacements still excelled. According to Pro Football Focus, Hakeem Bailey and Derrek Pitts Jr. were the two best players on the field Saturday.
Pitts’ performance stood out in particular. He moved from safety to cornerback in the offseason, but fit into his old spot as comfortably as a pair of slippers. The sophomore had a team-high eight solo tackles against the Jayhawks, including three for loss.
In fact, he was so comfortable that defensive coordinator Tony Gibson decided safety is the best place for Pitts on a permanent basis.
Gibson expects Avery back in the lineup this week, but Pitts’ reemergence at the position will allow him to keep both players fresh.
“If they are both healthy, then we’re going to use both of them just so we don’t run into the same situation we’ve been in where one guy is playing, and he goes down on play 40 or 50, and we have to move another guy in and start moving pieces,” Gibson said.
On a defense where Norwood migrated from safety to corner and JoVanni Stewart from safety to linebacker, it is somehow fitting to see a player returning to the back end from another spot.
“He brings a little more energy,” said safety Kenny Robinson. “Everybody has different strengths. I believe his is a little more speed and energy.”
Robinson says there is no griping from guys who are asked to move around.
“I think it’s just the bond of the defense, honestly,” he said. “Everybody wants to do something to help the team. Everyone is trying to find their place and role.”
There are multiple beneficiaries, which helps. In this case, freshman Jordan Adams will see reps as a second-team cornerback with Pitts primarily focusing on safety.
“He took a lot of reps last week at practice,” Gibson said. “So, we feel confident if someone needs a breather – right now, we’re going to stay with the same three that we’ve been playing – but Jordan would be that next guy in.”
For a secondary that entered the season with serious questions about cornerback depth, it’s a welcome development.
“[Derrek] gives us the ability to be able to play more than one person per spot,” said WVU coach Dana Holgorsen. “We need to get Derrek out there playing more. Whether it’s a corner/safety rotation or just moving guys around, that’s a heck of a problem to have.”