West Virginia Corners Troubling for Gibson

Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson, left, rushes past West Virginia cornerback Mike Daniels Jr. in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Landover, Md., Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

MORGANTOWN — It may only be Week 3 of the 2017 season, but it’s not too soon for veteran WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson to be concerned over the performance of his unit in the Mountaineers’ first two games.

“We are not happy right now,” Gibson lamented during Tuesday’s press conference. “Especially at the corners.”

Through the Mountaineers’ opening 31-24 setback to No. 18 Virginia Tech into last Saturday’s 56-20 dismantling of American Athletic Conference member East Carolina, the head of the Mountaineers defense has remained unchanged when it comes to the performance of his team’s cornerbacks.

“We still need to find those guys,” Gibson said. “We need to keep coaching, keep developing. We have to have a one and a two and we don’t have that right now.”

Senior Mike Daniels Jr. has been holding down the right side of the defensive secondary while redshirt sophomore Hakeem Bailey has started both contests on the left side with senior Elijah Battle providing coming in to spell him at times.

Former University of Syracuse cornerback Corey Winfield has been the primary replacement for Daniels. However, the coaching staff implanted freshman Kenny Robinson at one of the positions against the Pirates and came away liking what they witnessed.

“(Robinson) competes,” veteran head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “He makes mistakes, but he competes. Gibby has been wanting to try him out at corner for the last several weeks. We recruited him as an athlete because he is lanky just like (Daryl) Worley and Rasul (Douglas).”

Bailey has been the most productive of the group through two games. The 6-footer is second on the team behind senior linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton (8 solo, 8 assists) with 12 solo stops and one assist with two tackles for loss.

But, he and Daniels found themselves targeted in the passing game by Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson (15 of 26, 235 yards, one TD) and East Carolina’s Thomas Sirk (16 of 34, 191 yards, one TD).

“There’s been good and there’s been bad,” Gibson said. “Maybe I panicked? I didn’t like where we were at. Being up 49-3 they (the defense) may have been a little bit disinterested. But, we just can’t do that and be where want to be when Big 12 play begins.”

Saturday’s first meeting between WVU and the Hornets from FCS member Delaware State will be the Mountaineers’ final ‘tune-up’ game (non-conference) before it jumps into league play seven days later at Kansas.

Fortunately, the play of senior Kyzir White, who picked off a pair of passes in the win over ECU, at Spur, redshirt junior Dravon Askew-Henry at free safety and redshirt junior Toyous Avery at Bandit has allowed the secondary to overcome some of the ineffectiveness of their corners.

Plus, the play of backups JoVanni Stewart, Marvin Gross Jr. and South Charleston graduate Derrek Pitts has allowed Gibson and his assistants to move players like Robinson around.

“We still have too many people on the ground and launching themselves instead of tackling the way we teach them,” the defensive coordinator said. “You can’t tackle when you are laying on the ground and if you are launching yourself, you’d better make the stop or if you miss they will be off for a long gainer.”

And, that is a big reason why WVU ranks sixth in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense (123.2) and is seventh in opponent fourth down (66.7).

“We just have to make plays when they are there to be made,” senior linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton said following the ECU game. “We want to get off of the field as quickly as we can, especially when our offense is playing like it was in the first half, but in order to do that we have got to have players step up and make plays.”

That should not be a problem against the Hornets as DSU’s offense has struggled mightily through two opening season losses, scoring just nine points per game.

“It doesn’t really matter who we are playing,” Benton said. “All that matters to us is how we are playing and if we are continuing to get better.”