It’s easy to forget sophomore Kyshoen Jarrett wasn’t originally scheduled to be at Virginia Tech now that he’s being counted on to play free safety for the Hokies next season. A native of East Shroudsburg, Pa., he gave an oral commitment to Pittsburgh before reopening his recruitment when Coach Dave Wannstadt was let go following the 2010 season.
Within a month of Wannstadt’s firing, Virginia Tech defensive backs coach Torrian Gray had persuaded Jarrett to sign with the Hokies largely because “I’d seen the great corners that had come through Virginia Tech and I was like: ‘I want to be a corner. I have to be a corner. I want to be one of them,’ ” Jarrett said recently.
But he had to completely change that mind-set about a month ago when Gray came to him with another offer. The coach felt the best move for Virginia Tech’s secondary going forward would be to try Jarrett and redshirt sophomore Detrick Bonner at safety while moving Antone Exum, a starting safety last year, to cornerback. And so far, it seems the transition has gone relatively smooth this spring.
“I think those two guys give us some speed back there and give us some playmaking ability, and they’ve both been solid tacklers,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said of Bonner and Jarrett. “It gives us some athletic guys back there that have some range on the ball. I think we’ll have a little more range than what we did last year, if that’s how we stay with it.”
While Jarrett is lining up at safety for the first time in his entire playing career, Bonner has the advantage of being a high school safety during his senior season at Luella High in McDonough, Ga. Though he’s had to completely alter some on-field habits this spring, Bonner is excited about finally being in the spotlight after spending his first two years on campus behind more heralded players at the cornerback position.
It was only a year ago that Bonner was relatively unknown before surprising coaches with some impressive coverage skills at cornerback during spring practice. Last year he got some valuable experience – making some plays, and also giving a few up in four starts — when Jayron Hosley was hobbled by a hamstring injury.
“It’s a huge difference. It’s a mind game now,” said Bonner, who is currently manning the rover (strong safety) position. “If you had asked me on the first day of practice, I would have said, ‘Oh yeah, it is chaotic.’ But now that we’ve been through a couple practices, it’s more calm out there. It’s really a mind game, which challenges you and makes you a better player.
“Now that I am that guy, I feel like I need to step up. End of story. I like being back there. I like safety. I just got to work on getting bulky, get bigger, stronger.”
Heading into the spring, the main concern for both players was their communication skills. As Bonner alluded to, being a safety in Virginia Tech’s defensive scheme involves pre-snap reads and adjusting the secondary’s coverage, a skill even Exum struggled with at times last season.
Thus far, covering routes hasn’t been an issue for either Bonner or Jarrett given their cornerback backgrounds. But Bonner seems to have taken the biggest strides in terms of communication because “once I see something, it’s installed in my head,” he said. “I don’t have no problem with talking. Even if the call is wrong, I’d rather make the wrong call than no call. I don’t mind communicating. I’ve been communicating my whole life.”
Added Foster following Virginia Tech’s first open scrimmage: “I feel good enough about Bonner. He played enough last year for us. He’s really, I like [that] he’s taken command out there. He’s a guy that you hear him talk and communicate and playing fast and I like that. Kyshoen is still, you know, probably not at the same level yet.”
Jarrett also remains unproven in terms of tackling given how limited contact can be during spring practice, but having two former cornerbacks playing safety brings additional coverage skills few defensive backfields possess. And it will be crucial for Virginia Tech given how thin it is in the secondary this year.
The Hokies are counting on the quick development of true freshman cornerback Donaldven Manning, a highly regarded prospect taking part in spring practice this year after graduating early from high school. The 5-foot-9, 155-pound Miami native is “a little bitty dude, but he’s tough and he can run,” Foster said. “He’s got good presence out there and I like what he’s all about.”
When one considers that junior Kyle Fuller will be the only scholarship player on the roster this fall with extensive experience playing cornerback at the college level, it shines a light on just how paramount Bonner and Jarrett could be towards developing the dominating defense the Hokies appear to have on paper with nine opening day starters back.
Jarrett said he has overcome whatever jitters may exist playing a new position by leaning on the other three members of the first-team secondary. No matter what side of the field he’s lined up on, Jarrett either has an experienced all-ACC caliber cornerback – Fuller – or a former safety – Exum – there to guide him through any mental stumbling blocks.
That’s exactly the sort of versatility Foster has been talking about ever since he and Gray decided to try out this spring practice secondary shuffle.
“I’ve learned to communicate because of my surroundings,” Jarrett said. “With them talking with me as well, that’s kind of helped me talk more and I just want to make sure that presence they have in the fall is not taken away. I can cover from always being outside on an island as a corner. Hitting-wise, I’ll hit. I’m taking this opportunity full fledged and I don’t mind it at all at this point.”