Wicks, Rivers likely to start vs. Maryland

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- They found themselves aligning side by side Saturday. Just like they did at Perry Traditional Academy. Eric Wicks stood at safety, Vaughn Rivers at cornerback.

E and V, together again.

"It felt good," Wicks said, his mouth breaking into full beam.

"Oh, man, it was great," Rivers added, with a similar expressive response. "Brings back memories."

They were vital parts of a Perry Commodores defense that shut out 13 consecutive opponents, key cogs in a scholastic football machine that churned out three consecutive City League championships. After three years at West Virginia, where they have been roommates and remain fast friends, Thursday night on ESPN could represent a chance to reunite as part of the fifth-ranked Mountaineers' secondary, an opportunity to work -- if not start -- side by side against neighboring rival Maryland.

With starting cornerback Larry Williams' creaky back raising doubt about his availability, Wicks said of E and V Part II, "Most likely this week we will see a little bit more of that."

Williams was injured on the first play of West Virginia's second defensive series Saturday, and Rivers entered. On the ensuing third down, Eastern Washington threw in his direction and the pass fell incomplete.

Rivers, who moved back to cornerback in the spring after moving to receiver (where he caught eight passes last fall) from cornerback the spring before, finished that 52-3 victory Saturday with one tackle, two passes broken up and a forced fumble. Wicks, who moved into the spur safety last fall and became a playmaker, had a team-high five tackles. Their Commodores shutout magic didn't exactly translate into immediate collegiate results: Eastern Washington drove 73 yards in 15 plays on the next series and registered a 25-yard field goal. It was the only score the visitors produced and brought the Mountaineers' defensive total through two victories to 13 points allowed.

"And we aren't satisfied," Mountaineers defensive backs coach Tony Gibson said.

After all, by this juncture last year, the starting defense permitted just one touchdown and compiled six turnovers -- one of them an interception return for a touchdown by one of the Perry pals, giving rise to the nickname: Wicks for Six. Wicks also collected two sacks and a forced fumble through two games a year ago. In the victories against Marshall and Eastern Washington this season, the defense has two interceptions, both by redshirt freshman safety Quinton Andrews, and no sacks and no big plays by Wicks, who had 58 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks and four forced fumbles a year ago.

Some of the fret and concern comes from Mountaineers coaches, some from Wicks himself.

"Yes, a lot of pressure," he said. "It's big. We talk about turnovers, and we only have two in two games. When I got out there the first game, I was trying to play as hard as I could, but I was doing too much. I was trying to be more of a leader than actually I needed to be. I should just try instead to focus on my job.

"It's a little frustrating, just as far as the defense as a whole. Two turnovers and no sacks. We just need to keep our composure."

Maryland (2-0) certainly will test Wicks, Rivers and the Mountaineers' two-deep secondary. Quarterback Sam Hollenbach passed for 291 yards and two touchdowns when these teams played last September in College Park, Md. Hollenbach enters Mountaineer Field for the ESPN-televised showdown Thursday having thrown 20 completions for 292 yards and a 143.6 passer rating in short work against William & Mary and Middle Tennessee State.

Perhaps that was one reason coaches pulled the defense into a meeting room and reiterated strategy.

"Before, guys were just trying to play a little assignment football, but they didn't understand the defense that we're in," Wicks said. "Now the coaches have broken down to us what the defense is about. They broke it down to us why we have to do certain things. So a lot of guys have a better understanding how to go out and fix that. It's going to take some time to get together. I think maybe this week we'll come out and get some turnovers and sacks."

Rejoining two old Commodores might help.

"We're used to being on the field with each other," Rivers said. "I kind of know he's going to be there over top if I make a mistake, and he's the same way. It's a comfort. We just couldn't wait to get in a game on the same side [like at Perry]. We're trying to do it on a bigger level now."

"Vaughn's a veteran guy. We feel pretty good about Vaughn out there," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Eric always plays hard. But he hasn't had the type of game he can have. I hope he has his breakout game Thursday."

NOTES -- The Mountaineers-East Carolina game will be televised on ESPN Sept. 23 with a 4:30 p.m. kickoff. ... Rodriguez reported that first-team bandit safety Ridwan Malik (strained hip) and backup defensive lineman Doug Slavonic of Mt. Lebanon (high ankle sprain) likely won't play Thursday, with the other notable injuries being backup receiver Dorrell Jalloh (hip bruise) and Williams. He said of Williams' back, "That could go away in a day, or it could linger several days."

Joe Sadlek, Associated Press
West Virginia defensive back Eric Wicks played in the backfield at Perry Traditional Academy.
Click photo for larger image.

THURSDAY:

Game: Maryland (1-1) vs. No. 5 West Virginia (2-0), 8 p.m.

Where: Mountaineer Field, Morgantown, W.Va.

TV/radio: ESPN/WWVA-AM (1170).



Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


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