Before redshirt sophomore Detrick Bonner took the field for preseason practice this week, his teammates were already talking about the transformation he underwent since spring practice ended.
“He actually looks like a safety now,” cornerback Kyle Fuller said at the ACC’s football kickoff event last month.
The team’s weigh-in to start training camp confirmed it. Bonner had put on 12 pounds, the result of Virginia Tech’s intense weightlifting program, plenty of food and lots of Muscle Milk. A cornerback when he arrived at Virginia Tech, Bonner now weighs 198 pounds.
Now all that’s left is mastering the conversion from cornerback to safety in time for the Hokies’ season opener next month.
“I wish I would’ve gained more but keeping that speed would’ve been a struggle. I feel like I gained enough,” Bonner said Tuesday after Virginia Tech held its first preseason practice of the year. “My ball skills is there. I feel like I can also get better in that, But tackling-wise, I have to be bigger and have to be stronger, so me gaining that weight is a plus.”
The hope with Bonner playing free safety this year and sophomore Kyshoen Jarrett, also a converted cornerback, lining up at rover (strong safety) is that the Hokies will have a secondary full of players capable of lining up in pass coverage. But the defensive backfield remains something of an unknown for Virginia Tech.
After the starters – cornerback Antone Exum, in addition to Fuller, Bonner and Jarrett – there is little depth. On Thursday, Virginia Tech moved cornerback Carl Jackson to the second team because some of the team’s true freshmen have struggled to grasp the system in the first few practices of training camp. The team also decided freshman Dahmon McKinnon would be better suited for whip linebacker rather than free safety, where he lined up the first few days of training camp.
The players behind Bonner and Jarrett at safety – redshirt freshmen Michael Cole and Boye Aromire (H.D. Woodson) – also lack any game experience at the college level. But at least they’ve been on campus for a year.
That’s why defensive backs coach Torrian Gray indicated this week that if the secondary were to endure any injuries this year, he’d be more likely to move Jarrett and Bonner back to cornerback rather than move Exum back to safety – where he played last season.
So it’s not hard to see why the development of Bonner, who proved to be a willing hitter during spring practice, could be the most important factor in whether Virginia Tech’s defense turns into the dominant unit many expect this season. He entered the lineup last year, showing flashes of talent and moments of youthful inexperience, when cornerback Jayron Hosley was injured.
Though Jarrett didn’t redshirt last year, his playing time was mostly relegated to special teams.
“I think from an athletic standpoint, they’re fine,” Gray said Tuesday. “Just being more natural at the position, understanding when I’m getting depth, am I supposed to break on the ball. When I’m getting depth, what are the half field plays I should make. We didn’t do that consistently enough in the spring.”
Bonner pointed to the mental side of the position when asked what he and Jarrett must improve upon before training camp ends. Because the free safety is called on to make pre-snap coverage adjustments, Bonner must know the moves for every member of the secondary and even the linebackers at times.
Even so, Bonner feels the duo is well on its way to a successful season in the defensive backfield.
“We started off, me and Kyshoen couldn’t even communicate very well,” Bonner said. “I feel like we made great strides. It came a long way.”