Last Saturday, when the Hokies took the field for their first open scrimmage of the preseason, defensive backs coach Torrian Gray saw quarterback Logan Thomas and Virginia Tech’s first-team offense lined up against a back-up secondary featuring four true freshmen. One thought came to his mind: “Oh my God.”
The ensuing snaps proved his premonition correct as Thomas and his receivers picked apart a defensive backfield full of first-year players. And even after seeing improvement Wednesday, when the Hokies held another scrimmage, Gray isn’t exactly brimming with confidence should any of his starters happen to get injured in the near future.
“If we had to play and expect those guys to win for us, we’d still have to simplify it,” he said. “We couldn’t run our package the way we want, but they are getting better. It’s a process.”
On Thursday, Coach Frank Beamer’s official Web site revealed the freshmen that would dress for games this season, and on offense the names included ballyhooed running back Trey Edmunds and wide receiver Joshua Stanford. The Hokies will also dress a host of freshmen specialists, including punters A.J. Hughes and Hunter Windmuller and kicker Brooks Abbott. But it’s young cornerbacks such as Donaldven Manning and Donovan Riley that could prove the most vital as the season progresses.
Though Virginia Tech’s defense looks poised to be one of the best units Bud Foster has had of late, they are thin in the secondary. Manning is already slated to receive playing time as the Hokies’ nickel cornerback, but the 5-foot-9, 155-pound Miami native has been battling a hamstring injury most of training camp. Riley had an interception Wednesday, but “he’s taking some lumps” as he adjusts to the college game, Gray said.
And yet both are just one injury away from taking on a major role.
“You have a lot of guys out there that’s nervous being that everyone is a newcomer,” Manning said after Wednesday’s scrimmage, leaving the interview room with a significant limp. “Just because we’re young guys, we’ve got to step up and play. You can’t just forever say, ‘Oh, I’m a freshman.’ ”
All the youth has made Gray into one of the more animated coaches on the field these days. On Wednesday, he yelled so loud when safety Kyshoen Jarrett blew a coverage and left tight end Eric Martin wide open for a 52-yard catch on the first offensive play of the scrimmage, it could be heard throughout Lane Stadium. At one point later in the evening he hurled his familiar straw hat in disgust at a coverage breakdown.
What’s easy to forget is that even his first-team secondary is relatively unseasoned, considering safeties Detrick Bonner and Jarrett are first-year starters adjusting to new positions and cornerback Antone Exum played safety last year. The back-up safeties, redshirt freshmen Michael Cole and Boye Aromire (H.D. Woodson High), have also never played in a game and both have struggled to stay healthy this preseason.
The whole scenario has everyone crossing their fingers a bit as the Hokies prepare for the regular season to begin.
“Never had a unit, a back-up unit, that’s this green,” Gray said. “But two years from now . . . it’s like clockwork. That’s just not where we’re at right now.”