MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - On Thursday, the coaches who vote in this year’s college football poll ranked West Virginia 20th in the country to begin the season.
Of course, a lot of that is based on the returning firepower the Mountaineers have on offense, led by Florida transfer Will Grier
But in order for West Virginia to remain there (or even move up), how it performs on defense is going to go a long way in determining the type of season the Mountaineers ultimately end up having.
This year’s defense has to replace eight important parts from a unit last year that allowed the fewest points in conference play.
But one of the critical pieces missing from last year’s defense, free safety Dravon Askew-Henry
, who went down early in preseason camp with a season-ending knee injury, is back stronger than ever in 2017.
“Four practices in and no complaints from his end, and no complaints from my end,” WVU safeties coach Matt Caponi said. “He’s the leader that I thought he would be.”
Henry is once again expected to be one of the defensive stars in the Big 12 after productive seasons in 2014 and 2015.
He has been a starter since the first game of his freshman season in 2014 when he faced defending national champion Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta.
“I was just fresh out of high school,” he recalled.
Askew-Henry admits it took him a full year plus a lot of his sophomore season before he really felt comfortable playing in Tony Gibson’s unique, odd-stack defense.
In an odd and perverse way, blowing out his knee last year actually might have helped Henry’s career in one respect. It allowed him to hit the reset button and get into the film room and really become a student of the game for the first time in his life.
Before that, he was just playing and reacting to what he was seeing.
The idea to go to the movies and study up a little more actually came from a Pitt guy, of all people - Aliquippa’s Darrelle Revis, who told him to keep busy during his rehab process and get into the video room and study tape as much as he could.
Former WVU teammates Karl Joseph and KJ Dillon, who have gone through similar injuries during their careers, told him the same thing.
“When I first got hurt, the first couple of weeks, I didn’t want to watch any film, but I realized I had to be tough and get in there for my teammates and stay strong,” Askew-Henry said.
So he studied what the free safeties were doing in the defense in relation to the other players; he studied how quarterbacks were signaling in plays and ways offenses can sometimes tip off their plays.
Now, armed with that knowledge to go along with his off-the-chart athletic skills, we could be seeing an even better version of Dravon Askew-Henry
than the one we have enjoyed during his first two seasons wearing the Gold and Blue.
Perhaps there will be more of those pick-sixes like the one he had at Oklahoma State three years ago to lock up that big 34-10 victory in steamy Stillwater.
“Can’t wait to do that again,” he said.
We can’t either.
Henry admitted it has been a long, long process to get back on the field.
“A lot of people who go through that injury get depressed, and I had step up to the challenge and overcome it,” he said.
During his time away from the field, Henry said he was able to shed 10 pounds to get down to a svelte 198, which should improve his quickness and reaction time this season.
With emerging senior Kyzir White
lining up at spur safety, the Henry-White combination could give West Virginia one of the best safety tandems in the country in 2017.
At least that’s what coach Dana Holgorsen told some Pittsburgh reporters last week while observing a Steelers practice in Latrobe.
The Mountaineers had that once briefly in 2015 with Joseph and Dillon until Joseph injured his knee in practice before the Oklahoma State game. It was really a shame those two couldn’t play another full season together as seniors.
But that’s something Henry and White can do this year. The question is: can they perform at Joseph’s and Dillon’s level in 2017?
“I think me and Kyzir are going to be a little better,” Henry predicted. “We are up for the challenge.”
If that happens, West Virginia could be a weekly resident in college football’s top 25 this season.
Nevertheless, it’s been a long journey back to the field for Henry, once considered one of the top prep prospects in Pennsylvania during his senior season at Aliquippa High in 2013. Since then, it has been a trip full of ups and downs.
Now, he’s anxious to get to the other side.
“My freshman year, I was the youngest one, really, out there,” he recalled. “It was kind of hard because I didn’t really get the scheme and everyone was kind of tough on me because I was the youngest one. Then my sophomore year I kind of started to pick up on things, started to kind of take that leader role and then going into my junior year I was ready. I was that person bringing the energy then I got hurt.”
But now he’s back, healthy, and stronger than ever ready to bring even more energy to West Virginia’s defense in 2017.
“When times get hard I’m going to be the guy who steps up and makes something happen,” he noted.
They say the finest steel comes from the hottest fire, well, the Steel City’s Dravon Askew-Henry
is well versed in that.
Now the time has come for him to shine.