Coaches are often asked if they would prefer talent or experience.
The latter is something WVU safeties coach Dontae Wright currently does not have at his disposal as all three starters from a year ago, Alonzo Addae, Sean Mahone and Scottie Young, are pursuing careers at the next level.
Wright doesn’t have a preference between the two options. He’s coached both, so instead, he’s looking for something else within his players.
“I don’t have a ‘Do I like talent or do I like experience’ answer. I like guys who want to be great,” Wright said. “I like guys who have the ability to go out there and do what I ask them to do. We had experienced guys last year who went out there and did what we asked them to do. We have talent this year and they can do everything we ask them to do.”
The hunger to learn and progress is what excites Wright the most about his group. That’s overshadowed the inexperience through 14 spring practices.
Redshirt junior Marcis Floyd, sophomore Aubrey Burks and redshirt freshman Davis Mallinger have been getting the reps with the first group. Wright made sure to note they haven’t been deemed the starters, but they are currently the first unit out.
Floyd, a transfer from Murray State has the most collegiate experience, but he’s green to the safety position. He played at cornerback for the Racers and now has made the switch to safety.
“The transition has been surprisingly smooth. He gets himself in trouble at times when we are playing a bit of cover two and he’s going back into his corner world. A corner plays laterally where safety plays square and overtop of everything,” Wright said. “He’s very intelligent. I have to get him to be a little bit louder and control things a bit better but that’s where he’s used to playing corner and somebody telling him what to do.”
Mallinger is in a similar situation, but he’s not just new to the position, he’s new to the defensive side of the ball. The Florida native was a wide receiver in high school and was listed as an athlete when he signed with WVU. Last season was his first as a defender and he mostly saw action on special teams.
His position coach noted he has a high ceiling but hasn’t tapped into his full potential just yet.
“He can go really far if he buys into it and truly develops into a defensive player because we have to remember now the kid didn’t play defense. He’s just now learning how to play defense. He started out last year playing cat safety and now he’s trying to learn how to play spear,” Wright said. “Now, spear is easier for him because once again he’s being told what to do all of the time and he gets to be more of a see ball get ball kind of guy. But he’s also a guy who can line up on a slot guy like Sam James who is one of the faster guys in our league, and go toe to toe with him.”
Speed, physicality and a lack of fear of contact: hose qualities are why Wright believes Mallinger will have success at spear when he fully develops at the position.
“If you put on practice No. 1 to practice No. 14 we just finished, you’re not going to see even close to the same player,” Wright said. “Now, does he still make mistakes? Yeah. All of them do. He’s made tremendous strides and has an unbelievable ceiling.”
Wright is confident in his room because the players are confident in themselves. The concern is how quickly they could lose that confidence when they have experienced players lined up across from them in the fall.
“You don’t have to worry about in practice because practice is practice, but if you got out there to Pitt and your worry is that Biletnikoff winner out there and maybe he lines up in the slot and runs by you,” Wright said. “If they aren’t the right type of people they could lose some confidence and now it has that snowball effect. That is my biggest worry.”
The next thing on his list is the speed of the game. Due to their inexperience, can they get it to slow down enough to have the production expected of them?
“I say those are my biggest worries, but I’m not actually worried about it. I’m not. They are going to get tons of reps and go against Sam, Bryce (Ford-Wheaton), all those guys we got on offense. That’s a good barometer of where they are at,” Wright said. “I feel confident in them being able to run with anyone we have to face, to be able to be physical and tackle in open space and do all those good things. It’s a really exciting group.”
Junior college transfer Hershey McLaurin, redshirt junior Naim Muhammed and redshirt freshman Caleb Coleman have impressed in backup roles this spring. Wright said they all have “unbelievable talent” but they have to take that next step in the weight room.
“Caleb Coleman, he’s going to be a great player. He’s going to be. He’s not right now because he’s 180-pounds and he’s just not strong enough to do all the things that are asked of him,” Wright said. “Can he help us? You are doggone right he can help us, but is he going to be a guy who can go out there and play 50-60 snaps? That’s not what we need him to do right now. He needs to develop into that person and keep working in the weight room so he can be that person.”
Long. Athletic. Eager to learn. To Wright, those traits are just as important as talent and experience, and that’s exactly how he describes his “exciting” 2022 group.