Big East

Caponi Has a Handle on WVU’s Safeties

May 10, 2016

Matt Caponi’s ties to Tony Gibson go back to his days as a graduate assistant coach at Pitt in 2011, and continued for the year the two worked together on Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona staff in 2012.

At Arizona, Caponi spent the last three seasons coaching in Jeff Casteel’s version of the 3-3 stack, so by the time he arrived in Morgantown this past winter to take over coaching WVU’s safeties he had a pretty good understanding of the defense.

Caponi played the position in college at Mount Union and has spent a good portion of his coaching career working with the secondary, first at Washington & Jefferson in 2007 before getting his big break in Division I four years later as a graduate assistant coach on Todd Graham’s staff at Pitt.

Despite his familiarity with Gibson and the stack defense, Caponi said he’s always open to suggestions and ideas from some of the older players as he begins to familiarize himself with the Big 12 Conference.

“I think everyone helps each other out,” he said recently. “Most of the stuff, scheme-wise, I’ve been familiar with but the little things such as eye control and things that they have learned, we talk back and forth a lot and compare things.”

Caponi is also bringing some new ideas and concepts to the table, and he used this spring to get what they did down on film to study it and refine it during the time they are allowed to be out on the field together in the summertime before fall camp begins in August.

“Spring ball helps a lot because we can get it on film and we can work off of the new techniques that I’ve installed and brought in,” he said. “We can now see that when we’re meeting in June and make some cutups and watch them throughout call camp.”

Three of West Virginia’s main secondary guys were taken in last month’s NFL Draft, including outstanding safeties Karl Joseph (first round to Oakland) and KJ Dillon (fifth round to Houston).

Of the holdovers, senior Jarrod Harper took Joseph’s spot in the starting lineup at bandit safety in mid-October after Joseph went down with a season-ending knee injury during practice and performed admirably, and junior Jeremy Tyler has 33 games worth of experience under his belt.
Morgantown’s Shane Commodore performed well this spring and the coaches have no reservations whatsoever of playing him this fall as well, meaning Caponi has three solid players to work with at bandit.
Caponi also had good things to say about Khairi Sharif, a senior bandit safety from Houston.
At free safety, Caponi has a very talented player returning in junior Dravon Askew-Henry, whose 26 career starts are by far the most of any player in the secondary. Askew-Henry had a solid sophomore season in 2015 with four pass breakups, an interception and 59 total tackles in 13 games; in 2014, he was named an ESPN.com Freshman All-American after producing 45 tackles, two pass breakups and a pair of interceptions.

Askew-Henry is clearly a guy Caponi can lean on this season.

“Dravon knows the scheme being this is his third year,” he said. “He understands everything and he can help the younger guys by being a leader on defense. He’s not a big rah-rah guy, but when he talks, the guys listen.”

Askew-Henry, Harper, who sat out this spring while recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, Tyler and Commodore give Caponi some veteran leadership and experience in his meeting room.

The one place that remains up in the air is Dillon’s spur safety spot, which is one of the most important positions on the field in this defense because of its dual run-pass responsibilities. In some instances, the spur has to play like an outside linebacker in run situations, and in other instances, he’s got to be quick and agile enough to cover slot receivers and running backs out in space.

Therefore, that position requires a player who is a combination safety-linebacker with decent size to be able to take on bigger blockers at the line of scrimmage, but also athletic enough to be able to run with some of the fastest players on the field. Finding the right guy to play the position is not always easy, and sometimes it takes multiple players to accomplish what Gibson wants to get done.

However, whenever multiple players are required to man the spur that means Gibson is tipping the hand of the defense he’s calling, which was why Dillon was so valuable last year.

“KJ could do it all, but I’m not worried about it,” Caponi said. “We’ve got guys that can do it right now and we’re trying to put our best players on the field. If we have to move some guys around, we can do that, too.”

Junior Marvin Gross Jr. got a lot of work at spur this spring, as did youngsters Deamonte Lindsey and Dylan Tonkery. Super-talented JC transfer Kyzir White is due to arrive later this summer, along with Coffeyville Community College safety Toyous Avery and Katy, Texas, prep standout JoVanni Stewart.

Getting those new guys in here will certainly add depth and additional options for Caponi, not only for the regular defense, but also with all of the sub packages Gibson plans on using this fall, says Caponi.

“We get to work with the guys in June so we will take everything that we installed in spring ball and we will repeat it in June,” he said. “So we will have an opportunity to work with them during that month so then when we start up with fall camp in August they understand what’s going on.

“It’s just getting the technique and footwork stuff down and understanding the coverages so they are ready to roll in August.”

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