WVU's defensive backfield will be counted on as it has rarely been before during the 2009 season; defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel has promised more blitzing, putting his defensive backs in more one-on-one situations.
The good news is, the defensive backfield in WVU's unusual 3-3-5 odd-stack defense is experienced.
The starting cornerbacks will be junior Brandon Hogan on one side and redshirt sophomore Keith Tandy (seen hanging onto Hakeem Nicks's leg, above) on the other.
In many ways, Hogan has been an answer in search of a problem since arriving at WVU two years ago. He was a dual-threat quarterback in high school and his senior season numbers look like typos: 2,539 yards passing (32 TDs) and 1,735 yards rushing (26 TDs).
Shortly after coming to WVU, Hogan was switched to slot receiver and saw limited action. Last year, in a move that looked like a disaster at the beginning (East Carolina) but proved smart as the year wore on (UConn), Hogan was switched to cornerback and seems to have found his home (perhaps even his ticket to the NFL).
As a corner last year, Hogan proved fast, tough and opportunistic, with three interceptions. I am reasonably certain that this is the year he will successfully jump a corner route and return an interception for a touchdown.
At the same time, he is enigmatic. He came through a highly troubled high school career and, though he has stayed clean at WVU, he is described by some as emotionally fragile.
During last year's Meineke Car Care Bowl game, he became a natural mystery. He was a late scratch from the game for "personal reasons" and the team came out carrying his jersey, as if in memoriam.
In post-game interviews, the WVU players, though not disclosing what was wrong with Hogan, expressed concerns for him as though he was suffering from a medical or mental illness of grave proportion.
During the offseason, Hogan showed up back at his old high school to talk with the kids, but would not elaborate on his bowl absence. The same was true during the spring practice and the WVU beat reporters have simply resigned themselves to writing that Hogan missed the bowl game because of an undisclosed reason.
If they know what happened to Hogan, they are following Coach Stewart's wishes—indeed, demands—and not saying.
My thinking on this was that players are not publicly elected figures, so they deserve some privacy. And Hogan clearly engenders the love and protection of his teammates.
But those very same teammates elevated Hogan's bowl game absence to a notable and newsworthy level, essentially flying it in the faces of the fans and media; and then Stewart, athletic director Ed Pastilong, and the rest of the team officials have refused to say what happened to Hogan. I believe they should.
Rant over. Back to the preview.
On the other side is Tandy. Like Hogan, he was a high school quarterback.
Tandy, an engineering major, has described himself as a "technician." Technically speaking, the last we saw of Tandy was being dragged into the end zone on the back of North Carolina receiver Nicks in the Car Care Bowl, as Tandy was thrust into a starting role he wasn't ready for because of...Hogan's undisclosed absence.
The backup corners on one side are senior Kent Richardson and redshirt sophomore juco transfer Brantwon Bowser, who apparently made the greatest recovery in human history from a devastating knee injury requiring surgery last spring.
This was according to head coach Bill Stewart, who later said that Bowser didn't. (Aside: I don't know if Stewart is purposefully obfuscatory or only partially informed, but for a guy who professes to shoot straight, he doesn't all the time.)
On the other side, the backup corners are redshirt junior Eddie Davis, a former running back who was converted to slot back who was converted to cornerback; and senior special teams regular Guesly Dervil.
The backup cornerbacks to keep your eyes on, however, are two true freshmen: Floridan Broderick Jenkins, who played multiple positions in high school; and Alabaman Pat Miller. Neither looks like freshmen, says a person who has seen them practice. Both are expected to pass up a redshirt and compete for playing time this season.
The safeties are junior Sidney Glover, sophomore Robert Sands and senior Franchot "Boogie" Allen.
Glover is the biggest playmaker of the three but has had trouble staying healthy. That being said, I like him. He is a big hitter—so far, he has gotten the only clean hit on slippery freshman receiver Tavon Austin in August camp—and finds a way to get to the ball.
Sands has the most potential of the three. At 6'5" with flowing dreadlocks, Sands reminds me of the alien in "Predator." WVU coaches hope he can turn into more of a predator in the secondary.
He earned a starting job last season. but came up with few memorable plays. He will be used this season (along with 6'8" wide receiver Wes Lyons) to try to block opponents' field goal attempts.
(You just watch: the constantly injured Lyons, finally healthy and coming off a terrific spring in which he won the starting slot receiver position, will be injured trying to block a field goal in the Liberty game.)
Allen is a yeoman senior, ready to make the most of his last year. He has spent time largely as a backup and on special teams, though he did earn some spot starting duty last season.
Behind them are redshirt sophomore Eain Smith and redshirt senior Nate Sowers (who also started life as a quarterback, then was switched to receiver before settling in the secondary).
Casteel and Stewart have lauded the blitz in spring and fall practices and promised to bring many more this year from many angles.
In West Virginia's defense, which doesn't feature a traditional rush end of the kind found in the 4-3 defense, the blitzes come from the linebackers, the safeties and even the corners.
Such blitzes helped WVU beat Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, as corners lined up opposite Sooner wide receivers, only to race past them and toward quarterback Sam Bradford for the sack.
This maneuver requires the cornerback to quickly get to the quarterback and the safety to pick up the wide receiver in case the cornerback fails in his task.
If WVU is to do more of this this season, its cornerbacks and safeties will be responsible for more one-on-one coverage than they have in the past, a very high risk-reward proposition.
It is a bet that will be tested in West Virginia's second game, against East Carolina and its veteran quarterback.