By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
April 9, 2010
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It might be a good idea to keep an eye on Robert Sands this year. Opposing offensive coordinators certainly will be looking out for him.
||Robert Sands had five interceptions and eight pass breakups last year as a sophomore.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Last year as a sophomore, West Virginia’s 6-foot-5-inch free safety produced five interceptions, broke up eight passes and made 65 tackles. His performance in the Pitt game when he picked off a pass, broke up three more and was in on seven tackles had pro scouts up in the press box writing furiously in their notebooks.
Sands and senior nose guard Chris Neild could very well be the best one-two defensive combo in the Big East this year. Sands knows that Pitt tape has gotten around and people will be looking out for him this year.
“They probably think I’m aggressive for a safety because I read the run so quickly, but at the same time I process so much and I see it so much on film that I see it and I know what they’re doing,” Sands said. “I can react. I don’t have to think about it.”
Sands has so many outstanding qualities that it’s hard to pick out his best. He’s got tremendous size (6-feet-5 and 221 pounds), good speed (4.4), outstanding instincts and the toughness to go along with 26 games worth of experience. Added together, those figures tend to get people’s attention.
Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel certainly likes what he’s got in Sands, but he says his safety is still only scratching the surface of his potential.
"He’s got to learn to work every day to be a great player,” Casteel says.
Yet with Sands, Sidney Glover, Brandon Hogan and Keith Tandy returning in the secondary this year, Casteel has the comfort of having four veteran players in the back end. And generally speaking, the more comfortable defensive coordinators are with their back-end players, the more aggressively they tend to call defenses.
“They give you a lot of latitude when you have guys who know what’s going on, know how to adjust, and they can allow you to be aggressive and maybe be more aggressive than what you would be with some guys that are new to the game back there,” Casteel said.
Having older guys in the secondary can mean disguising defenses more easily as well.
“You don’t get out of whack versus having a young guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing,” said Sands. “You kind of want to be stationary and not doing too much thinking to make it easier (for younger players).”
Casteel is already moving Sands around a little bit this spring, putting him at bandit safety in some situations because his size can also be beneficial around the line of scrimmage.
“I’m going to play some free and some bandit,” Sands said. “You will see me moving around. Sometimes I might be in the box, sometimes I might be in the middle third or I might come off the hash. You never know.”
And that is an even bigger cause of concern for opposing offenses.
“They’ve got to find me,” Sands explained. “I kind of like that instead of just being at free because by playing two positions I’m a dual threat. Now you don’t know where I’m at and you can’t game plan for me as easily.”
Just like free safety, the bandit safety is also usually an unblocked position in West Virginia’s odd-stack defensive scheme.
“Nine times out of 10 (the bandit) is the man that is unblocked and pretty much gets the cleanup hits – but you’ve got to make those hits,” Sands noted. “That’s the thing.”
Sands said there are plenty of things that he needs to clean up this spring and next fall.
“There were a lot of plays when I got those pass breakups where if I would have broke a little quicker or recognized it just a split second faster those pass breakups could have ended up as interceptions,” he said. “Breaking down in the open field … I missed a few tackles in the open field that I want to correct this year."
All successful playmakers are gamblers and Sands is no different.
“They take calculated risks, I would say,” he said. “If you want to make a play you’ve got to take a calculated risk and at the same time, you’ve got to recognize stuff, formations, what the play is, all within a matter of three seconds.”
Sands understands, too, that his height is his one of his best attributes on the football field.
“Nowadays you’ve got receivers that are 6-4, 6-5 and you need a big safety to be able to jump up with those receivers,” Sands said. “Then you’ve got the shifty ones so you have to have good feet. At 6-5 I’ve got to continue to work on my feet.”
Sands’ biggest goal for 2010 is improving on the numbers he put up in 2009.
“You want to progress,” he said. “You did something last year and you want to do it better this year. You don’t want to stay the same and that’s what I’m going to try and do this year. Having five interceptions, I’m going to try and get six this year. Having eight pass breakups, I’m going to try and get nine. If I get that, it’s progress in itself.”
West Virginia’s last two defenses have been solid, but Sands thinks this year’s group can be really special if they continue to improve and play together.
“Over the past couple of years we’ve only lost like five starters off those defenses,” he explained. “I think we’ve got the makings of a very strong defense, we’ve just got to go out there and prove it.”