- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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West Virginia's Robert Sands stands tall at safety.
Literally. He's 6-foot-5. And he never played bigger than in last week's 19-16 upset of Pittsburgh. Sands had seven tackles, three pass break-ups and a crucial fourth-quarter interception to earn Big East defensive player of the week honors. He now leads the league in interceptions and pass break-ups.
I caught up with the sophomore from Carol City, Fla., before this week's Rutgers game for our final regular-season Friday Q&A:
Congratulations on being Big East defensive player of the week.
Robert Sands: Thank you. I just found out about that today. It's pretty cool.
Tell me about your game against Pitt. You had the big interception and nearly had one or two more.
RS: I came close to two other ones, actually. I had a potential pick-six, but I didn't look it in and I was ready to run in, but I just dropped the ball. Another one, I ran across the field to make a play on the ball and I ended up dropping that one on the sidelines. Then I had the interception in the fourth quarter, which was the hardest attempt of the night. But I ended up coming up with that one. It was kind of thrown high for (Jonathan) Baldwin, and I came down with kind of a circus catch, you could say.
You've now come down with quite a few of those. Is making plays on the ball one of your strengths?
RS: Yeah, one of the strengths of my game is being able to high-point the ball, going and it at its highest point and coming down with the tough catches.
It must be easier to high-point the ball with your height, right?
RS: When the ball is thrown high, I've got a pretty good chance of being able to catch the ball. It also helps that on defense, I know where I should be and can position myself so I can also react on the ball.
Coach Bill Stewart said this week he had encouraged the defensive backs to work on their hands with the JUGS machine. Did that help you?
RS: I've actually been doing ball drills since my freshman year with the slot receivers, with Jock Sanders and Noel Devine before and after practice. So that helps me out a lot.
You started most of last year as a freshman but didn't start the first four games this year. Did that serve as motivation for you?
RS: It was more of a lesson for me to learn. I didn't start the first four games but I had a lot of playing time in all four. It was more teaching me a lesson about life.
What lesson was that?
RS: It was just something me and coach discussed in private. I can't really discuss it with the media. I'll just leave it at that.
You're now into your second year. How much has experience helped you improve?
RS: Experience-wise, I think I'm a lot better. As a freshman, I was always worried about my assignments before the snap, after the snap and what I was supposed to do. This year, I'm out there pointing and giving directions and all that. I think my progress has come a long way, and I think it's only going to get better if I keep working.
In addition to your pass defense against Pitt, you made a nice tackle on Dion Lewis. How has the run-stopping part of your game evolved?
RS: I think that's always been one of the strengths of my game. I'm a good open-field tackler. I've actually gotten a little better this year, because I'm making plays behind the line of scrimmage as well. The coaches are trying to use my tackling ability and use me as an an uncounted man.
You're unusually tall for a safety. How did you get to play this position?
RS: I've been playing safety now for about five or six years. I got introduced to playing safety when I was like 13 years old and I never looked back.
Did any coach ever try to move you because of your size?
RS: Before that, I was always average height. I used to play running back, a little bit of receiver. And then I got to high school and everybody played one way. There were too many people playing running back so I just played safety.
The West Virginia secondary seemed like it had some problems earlier in the year but has gotten much better of late. Would you agree with that, and if so what has been the key?
RS: The secondary has been playing a lot better this past half of the season because we've been talking to each other, saying how good we should be but we're not there yet. We keep working on it and treat each practice as a gameday situation. We try to make sure nobody catches the ball out there on us.
You handled Cincinnati's passing attack well and shut down Pitt, probably the best two passing teams in the league.
RS: That says a lot about our secondary. We always had it in us, we just had to bring it all together. We had to eliminate mental mistakes and focus on the positive things we did have. Once we got rid of those mistakes, we became a pretty good secondary.
There's been talk of you guys going to the Gator Bowl. Do you feel like you can make this a pretty good season now?
RS: We're just focusing on Rutgers and preparing to beat them, and once we find out what bowl game we're going to, we'll prepare for that and try to get a victory in that. We want to finish our season out strong.
What did the Pitt win do for your confidence as a team?
RS: Beating one of our rivals put a little pep in our step and gave us that confidence we needed, because we came off losing some of these close games. To be able to beat a rival in our home in front of our fans is a big momentum boost for us.