When he met with reporters for the first time before this college football season began, Virginia Tech cornerback Jayron Hosley let it be known that his goal was to end the year with 15 interceptions. It didn’t seem all that far-fetched either considering Hosley led the country with nine interceptions as a sophomore in 2010.
But his junior season hasn’t gone according to plan. Through 10 games, Hosley has just three interceptions — and none since the Hokies’ loss to Clemson back on Oct. 1. In recent weeks, opposing teams have had more success completing passes to players Hosley is defending than Virginia Tech fans have grown accustomed to seeing.
That’s not the greatest sign with North Carolina wide receiver Dwight Jones (63 catches, 913 yards, eight touchdowns) coming to Lane Stadium on Thursday. Hosley, though, seems to realize he hasn’t quite lived up to his preseason expectations.
“As far as productivity I haven’t put up the numbers I had last year thus far,” said Hosley, whose best game this year came against Arkansas State back in September when he intercepted two passes and completely shut down former Oklahoma recruit Josh Jarboe. “I won’t compare it to last year. It’s a new year. Not everything is gonna go your way. You’ve got to keep fighting and continue the season. My head’s not down. I’m still up. My head’s high.”
Part of the problem has been the hamstring injury Hosley suffered in practice before the Wake Forest game (and then re-aggravated on a 77-yard touchdown reception by Demon Deacons wide receiver Chris Givens). Hosley was forced to miss Virginia Tech’s win over Boston College the next week.
He admitted this week the injury still felt tight when he returned to the lineup for the Hokies’ win over Duke, and it showed when Hosley was flagged for two pass interference penalties and allowed Blue Devils wide receiver Conner Vernon to finish with four catches for 88 yards.
But Hosley said his hamstring was back to full strength after Virginia Tech’s bye week, which made his performance last Thursday against Georgia Tech more concerning. Hosley was again flagged for pass interference and gave up a 41-yard completion against a Yellow Jackets squad that attempted just 14 passes.
“I believe Jayron is healthy. It’s just the past couple games he hasn’t played to the standard he has and we have for him,” defensive backs coach Torrian Gray said. “It’s about getting back to the fundamentals really, not having to feel like he has to make every play.”
Hosley, as Virginia Tech’s coaches pointed out this week, is a playmaker at heart, but that philosophy has sometimes cost him now that he’s being asked to play more man-to-man coverage this year. Last season, he played on the wide side of the field in mostly zone coverage, taking advantage of his preternatural instincts to pick off opposing quarterbacks seemingly at will.
The move to boundary cornerback also seems to have hampered the 5-foot-10 Hosley defending the deep ball. Gray said on both passes Georgia Tech completed on Hosley, the junior turned to try and make a play on the ball too early.
“That’s probably the hardest part of being a defensive back — playing the deep ball,” Hosley said. “When you got a quarterback putting it back shoulder, you’ve got to be able to turn towards the man and play it instead of turning away. You just got to play what you see on film and that’s basically the thing I’ve been trying to work on all season.”
Hosley’s main responsibility Thursday will be to slow down Jones, a 6-4, 225-pound preseason all-ACC selection who almost certainly will play in the NFL. But it could also be a breakout game for Hosley because North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner has thrown an ACC-high 11 interceptions this year and “takes a lot of risks down field trying to get his receivers to make plays,” according to safety Antone Exum. “He’s a guy that can beat you with the pass, but he can also play for you, throwing you the ball.”
Jones had just one catch for four yards facing the Hokies last year as Virginia Tech intercepted North Carolina senior T.J. Yates four times. But former cornerback Rashad Carmichael, now with the Houston Texans, mostly covered Jones in 2010.
Hosley, too, is considered an NFL prospect, but he again declined to speculate this week as to whether he’ll forgo his senior season and declare for the NFL draft following the season. He also seems to have dialed back the individual goals, saying his mission as the Hokies enter the final stretch of the regular season is to “win. That’s it. Win. Whatever I got to do to help my team win and just keep playing ball. It’s not over until the last game, so we just got to keep winning out.”
And despite some of the unexpected ups-and-downs Hosley has had this year, the coaching staff hasn’t wavered in their belief that more often than not Hosley will end up making a game-changing play.
“I would say there’s plays he would like to have back, but after I said that I’d still match him up against whoever their best one is,” Coach Frank Beamer said. “His aggressiveness may get him in trouble from time to time, but a lot of times he can make up for it. I still think when it’s all said and done, I have great confidence in Jayron Hosley.”