Virginia Tech’s spring practice begins Wednesday, and the start of a new season brings about new challenges to overcome. Last year attention focused on quarterback Logan Thomas, but this time around the Hokies have holes to fill all over the field. Here’s another story as part of our series trying to address the various questions that face Virginia Tech this spring.
Question No. 3: What will the secondary look like?
When the offseason began back in January, the excitement around Virginia Tech was focused on a defense that ranked 10th in the country last season and returned ten starters. After all, Bud Foster’s unit may have put on its best performance of the year in a Sugar Bowl loss that saw the Hokies hold Michigan’s Denard Robinson to a career-low 13 yards rushing.
But with both safety Eddie Whitley and cornerback Jayron Hosley now pursuing their NFL dreams as well as cornerback James Farrow’s decision to transfer last month, there is some uncertainty in Virginia Tech’s secondary. In hopes of getting their four best players on the field at once, Foster and secondary coach Torrian Gray will experiment with a new lineup this spring that will feature three players trying out new positions.
Foster said this week that rising redshirt junior Antone Exum will move to cornerback along with junior Kyle Fuller after starting all 14 games a year ago at safety. Sophomores Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett, meantime, will be playing safety after lining up at cornerback last season, drastic changes for a group that has taken to calling itself “DBU” in recent years because of all the former Hokies now playing in the NFL.
Exum’s move to cornerback is the most surprising considering he led the team in tackles (89) last year. But the way Foster explains it, this will free up Exum from having to make pre-snap formation adjustments that have sometimes hindered his athleticism in the past.
The Glen Allen, Va., native also played nickel cornerback quite a bit two years ago as a redshirt freshman and actually finished the season with a team-high nine pass break-ups.
“I think Antone’s strengths are he’s got great ability -- he can run, he can cover, he can tackle. Probably his weakness is ability to adjust during the course of a game and we’re just trying to put him in a position that’s going to maximize his assets and minimize his liabilities,” Foster said. “I think corner is a critical position in our scheme. We place a lot on our corners. They’re on an island so to speak, but it takes the mental part out of it. To this point, he’s been a better player when his mind’s not tying up his feet.”
The plan is to use Exum as a boundary corner, where he’ll play more man-to-man coverage. Foster also said the trend in recent years has seen offenses funnel their blocking towards safeties to force cornerbacks to tackle in support of the run, and Exum is every bit the open field tackler Fuller has been.
But it’s Bonner and Jarrett who likely face the biggest learning curve since each will be transitioning to a new position that involves making calls before the snap.
Bonner, you’ll remember, emerged last spring after redshirting during the 2010 season, and saw significant playing time in 2011 when Hosley was limited by a hamstring injury. He showed flashes of being a lockdown cover corner, but also gave up a few big plays because of his inexperience.
Jarrett was the highest rated prospect in last year’s recruiting class after he switched his commitment from Pittsburgh to Virginia Tech late in the process when former Coach Dave Wannstadt was fired. The Hokies decided not to redshirt him, but Jarrett saw limited action on defense.
Foster thinks both players could be better equipped to handle the communication aspect at safety than Exum did.
“Probably the one thing that [Exum] didn’t do a great job of with communicating was being unsure,” Foster said. “I think this year he probably would’ve been better, but I know this – I think those two will be fine from a communication standpoint. I think they’ll jump right in.”
Another key figure in this secondary shuffle is true freshman cornerback Donaldven Manning, who enrolled in school early to take part in spring practice. A four-star prospect according to all the major recruiting services, Manning will need to emerge as a reliable third cornerback because Foster would like to keep using the nickel package that was increasingly effective last season when Fuller emerged as the defense’s best player.
But Foster was quick to note that these changes could all be temporary. If they don’t seem right in the spring, the team could go back to playing Exum at safety and move Bonner and Jarrett to cornerback again. If anything, Foster believes this will create depth for a thin secondary.
“The main thing is we’re teaching up guys that if we were to get hurt and have some injuries this year . . . if that situation were to ever come up, we could plug in those guys,” Foster said. “We’re just looking at this for a couple weeks and we’ll see how it goes.”
Other entries in this spring practice series: