WVU football: Cook, Dillon are keys to improved defense
NORMAN, Okla. -- Darwin Cook was named West Virginia's defensive player of the week for how he played against William & Mary, especially in a second-half shutout.
Fellow safety K.J. Dillon, in the estimation of Coach Dana Holgorsen, "had an OK day."
These are good developments for the Mountaineers for it would appear Cook is back and Dillon is coming for the defense. Those are trends that must continue curling upward if the defense that was so bad last season is to improve in 2013.
Their next test may stand as the most difficult of the entire season when WVU (1-0 plays at No. 16 Oklahoma (1-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday. The game at Memorial Stadium will be televised by Fox.
"We're excited," defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "What an opportunity to showcase what we're all about. No one thinks we're any good anyway. What have we got to lose?"
Oklahoma is 82-5 at home since 1999, so WVU has plenty to gain. The Mountaineers can't wipe away what happened last season, but can aggressively edit the expectations for this season.
And whether the competitively private Patterson wants to admit it or not, much of that Saturday and throughout the season will fall on the shoulder pads of his safeties, most notably Dillon and Cook.
A year ago, the Mountaineers called a lot of quarters coverage, which had defensive backs patrolling assigned quadrants of the field. Patterson, who is new to his position of authority after serving as the co-coordinator last season, vowed in the spring to never play that way and to make use of his safeties.
Sophomore Karl Joseph was the team's best defensive player last season, but he has certain responsibilities as the last line of defense as the free safety. Cook is the defense's most opportune player - when healthy. Last year, he wasn't healthy for much of the season and a bad leg and later a bad attitude cost him playing time and productivity.
Dillon is the wild card, too green to completely trust right now, but too talented to disregard.
"We feel like he has ability to make plays, so we're getting him ready to be that nickel guy for us," Holgorsen said.
Dillon couldn't get on the field last season. He confessed he was overwhelmed by the transition to college football and the complexities of the former defensive scheme. Yet he's an athletic force, a state track and field champion in multiple events at his Florida high school, one the defense wants to spring on opponents from that nickel back spot that will be used a lot against Big 12 offenses, beginning with the one the Mountaineers will see first.
"We need to get more out of him than we did (Saturday)," Holgorsen said. "I think he played 12 snaps, but we've got to use him in nickel situations. How many times did William & Mary come out with three or four receivers? Five, six, seven times the whole game?
"Obviously, that's what Oklahoma likes to do and their three- and four-receiver sets are going to mean more time and a lot more opportunities to get in the game and show what he's got."
Dillon can cover receivers in the defensive backfield and blitz or play the run off the edge. He can start away from the line of scrimmage or on top of it.
"They feel as though I'm a good body for that position," said the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Dillon, who before last week hadn't blitzed in a game since he was a senior in 2011. "All we're doing is trying to find the best 11 guys who can play ball, no matter where you play. If you're one of the 11 best, they'll find a way for you to be on the field."
Where Joseph's position sometimes keeps him deep, Cook's throws him into the action. Again and again last week, even against William & Mary's conservative fronts that protected the passer with seven blockers, the aggressive, instinctual Cook threatened to come off the edge.
That will change against the Sooners because they'll spread their offense out more. The Tribe played so compact that Cook was safe to crowd the line of scrimmage. He said he was never ordered to blitz and instead just chased the ball when he happened to find himself in the backfield.
The Sooners are bending their reputation of a passing team, though, in order to protect and nurture redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, but also to make the most of an enormous offensive line and a line of quality running backs, led by Damien Williams and Brennan Clay and often facilitated by versatile fullback Trey Millard.
The Mountaineers figure to use fewer 3-4 and 4-3 formations this week than they did last week in the normal course of play, which means more Dillon to combat the pass, but also more Cook to slice in and contest the run or sometimes blitz, which he says is built into the scheme.
Cook said he blitzed three times last season, though he turned one into a forced fumble and a Doug Rigg touchdown return against Maryland. Patterson will call Cook's number from time to time and Cook said he and Joseph are "free to freelance" to disguise their intent before the snap.
"They're using me just like in 2011 when (former defensive coordinator Jeff) Casteel was here," Cook said, harkening back to the 3-3-5 that isn't much different than Patterson's nickel or, of course, his 3-3-5. "It's very similar to that. I played defensive end in high school and (Patterson) knew that. He just wanted to incorporate that into this defense."
His leg healed and his mindset calibrated, Cook said he's healthier than any time since he stepped on campus in 2009 and has never been more excited to play than he is right now.
"It feels good," he said, "to feel good again."