West Virginia Football: Helping hands fill holes on defense
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- To refurbish a secondary that saw both its senior starting cornerbacks and two senior standout safeties complete their eligibility, the West Virginia coaching staff turned to a source rife with returning starters.
So that's how a former starting tailback and a former starting receiver wound up at the same cornerback spot after the first week of spring drills.
Pernell Williams, the ex-tailback, came to coaches with the idea.
Vaughn Rivers, a cornerback who converted to receiver about this time last spring, heard about the possibility the Friday before last.
"Seems like we're taking everybody," said Rivers, a sophomore from Perry Traditional Academy.
Rivers spent last season at receiver, where he started two games and caught six passes. He also was a kick returner, averaging 23.9 yards on eight kickoff returns and 12.2 yards on eight punt returns. He expects to continue in that capacity, now back at cornerback where he started his college career.
"Our offense is sound right now," Rivers said of a unit that returns nine players who started half if not most of the season and 10 others with at least a single start on their resume.
"And I have a big chance to help on defense. I have a lot of friends there. I just want to make plays on that side of the football."
At 5 feet 9, 165 pounds, Rivers isn't big. Yet he is a big-play sort of guy. It is his quickness, his agility, his football savvy that brought him to cornerback ... then to receiver ... and back again.
With 2005 starting cornerbacks Anthony Mims and Dee McCann departing, only Antonio Lewis and Larry Williams have started for the Mountaineers at the position, and each one game apiece. Lewis, hobbled by a minor foot injury at the end of spring's opening week, has freshman Charles Pugh as his backup. Larry Williams has Rivers and Pernell Williams with him at his "field" cornerback spot.
Receivers coach Butch Jones mentioned to Rivers the middle of that first week something about the possibility of a return to his old defensive address.
"But I never thought it would be that quick," Rivers said of coach Rich Rodriguez's sudden announcement at the ensuing squad assembly. "Aw, man, coach Rod at the spur of the moment at the team meeting, he surprised me. But I was pretty excited.
"I got right back into it naturally. I thought I'd be a little rusty. But, for the most part, I'm pretty well adjusted."
It also gives Rivers a chance to reunite with former Perry Traditional Academy teammate and roommate Eric Wicks, the "spur" safety in the Mountaineers' 3-3-5 alignment, though Wicks also is working at the "bandit" safety position vacated by Mike Lorello.
Wicks and Rivers were part of the 2002 Perry defense that shut out 13 consecutive opponents.
As for Pernell Williams, a sophomore with 510 yards rushing and five touchdowns in his West Virginia portfolio, he suddenly finds himself tackling people again -- something he hadn't done since playing at Jefferson High School in Dayton, Ohio.
"I was thinking about it," he said of the switch to cornerback. "The coaches have been trying to get me to move. Everybody's coming over and trying to help. It's important in these 15 practices to soak up as much as you can before fall. I know the whole offense, but the offense doesn't matter anymore. Now it's defense."
Rodriguez, though, emphasizes that this is only a test. "He wanted to try there," the coach said. "It could or could not be permanent. We'll see. I think he can be a pretty physical presence back there. [But] if he's not going to play at all on defense, we know he can help us on offense."
Then again, Rivers may or may not stay affixed at cornerback, either. Nothing seems permanent with him. Rodriguez merely cautions that if the receiver position needs depth at some juncture in the fall, nobody should act surprised if Rivers plays a little receiver, too.
At tailback, Pernell Williams believes the duties at his old position will remain in the capable hands of players over whom he started early last season: Steve Slaton, Jason Colson and others.
"Those are my boys," he said. "They'll be fine."
And if they happen to collide on a few spring sweeps? He won't ease up: "They're trying to get me, too."
Safety Tyler Benoit went the other way, moving last week to tailback -- where receivers Darius Reynaud and Blackhawk's Jeremy Bruce also have been practicing part time. ... Rodriguez praised the improvement of linebacker Barry Wright, a walk-on transfer from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College and Florida State. "I think he can help us and play some defense next year."
First Published April 3, 2006 12:00 am