WVU Football Position Preview: Mountaineers focused on position flexibility for safeties group

MORGANTOWN — Position flexibility is the name of the game on the back end of West Virginia’s secondary for 2024. After dealing with injuries and limited depth at spots each of the last two seasons, the Mountaineer coaching staff is cross-training as many players as they can at all three safety spots — cat, free and spear — this offseason to avoid those depth issues moving forward.

“Those guys are all working together,” secondary coach ShaDon Brown said this spring. “The main thing is to enhance their skill set and the second thing is it adds to our depth. And it allows us as coaches to see what guys are best at. Then we can put the pieces in the best fit for them to be successful, which is a win for the kid and a win for West Virginia.”

Brown, who is also the co-defensive coordinator, had his role expanded to the entire secondary this offseason after coaching just the cornerbacks for the last three seasons.

WVU returns both of its starting deep safeties last season in seniors Aubrey Burks and Anthony Wilson. 

Burks, the team’s defensive leader, racked up 48 tackles with four tackles for loss and two interceptions playing cat safety last season. His primary focus this offseason has been learning spear.

“The biggest difference for me from spear to cat safety is playing at five yards (from the line of scrimmage) instead of 10 or 12,” Burks explained.

“I can move him around at any time and I’m doing that to give him reps at both spots and we’re doing that with some of the other guys,” Brown added. “We’re mixing and matching those guys.”

Wilson, who transferred from Georgia Southern last year, was second on the team with 80 total tackles in 2023. He added 1.5 tackles for loss and had an interception. 

“Anthony’s got to improve as a cover guy,” Brown said. “He’s a good tackler, he did a good job (last season) and we did things to fit his skillset. Where he struggled last year was in pass coverage so what we’ve harped on is body positioning and understanding leverage.”

Behind Burks and Wilson, the Mountaineers added a pair of transfers this offseason in Jaheem Joseph (Northwestern) and Kekoura Tarune (Jacksonville State).

Joseph, who enrolled early and was in Morgantown for spring practices, started six games for the Wildcats last season, finishing with 24 tackles and a team-high three interceptions.

“Jaheem is a very, very quick guy,” Burks said. “Smart too, he’s catching up on the playbook.”

Tarune was a late addition to WVU, just joining the team last month. Playing cornerback for former WVU coach Rich Rodriquez at Jacksonville State, Tarune started eight games for the Gamecocks, racking up 48 tackles with three interceptions. He previously played at Rochester Community and Technical College.

Further down the depth chart are younger players Brown and the coaching staff see a lot of promise in, headlined by redshirt freshman Josiah Jackson.

“Josiah Jackson is also a guy that’s made a jump,” Brown said. “He’s gotten a lot stronger this offseason. He’s able to control his body a lot better, the weakness that he had was lower-body strength.”

Brown also lauded the improvement of redshirt freshman Aden Tagaloa-Nelson, who also played on the WVU men’s basketball team over the winter. True freshman Isreal Boyce (Douglassville, Ga.) also earned some praise in the spring. 

Rounding out the deep safeties are Avery Wilcox and Jason Cross Jr.

At spear, the team has redshirt sophomore Raleigh Collins III and freshman Zae Jennings (Cincinnati, Ohio). Last season’s starter, Hershey McLaurin, transferred to Houston this offseason.

Projected Depth Chart

Spear
Raleigh Collins III, R-So
Zae Jennings, Fr

Cat Safety
Aubrey Burks, Sr
Kekoura Tarune, Sr. (Jacksonville State)
Josiah Jackson, R-Fr
Isreal Boyce, Fr

Free Safety
Anthony Wilson Jr., R-Sr
Jaheem Joseph, R-Jr (Northwestern)
Aden Tagaloa-Nelson, R-Fr
Avery Wilcox, R-Jr
Jason Cross Jr., Fr