By Mark Giannotto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010; 10:27 PM
BLACKSBURG, VA. - Virginia Tech safety Eddie Whitley, a third-year sophomore, still recalls the awe he felt upon walking into a meeting room during his first days in Blacksburg back in the summer of 2008.
He said something came over him when he saw a wall filled with pictures of all the Hokies who have played in the NFL. Seated in the room were veterans Macho Harris and Kam Chancellor, two future NFL draft picks who quickly brought Whitley back to reality with a piece of advice.
"All right, look, you a DB at Virginia Tech now, you have a reputation to uphold," Whitley said this week, recalling their message to him. "We can't let none of these guys that are on this wall down."
Nearly a third of the 82 players who have been selected in the NFL draft from one of Coach Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech teams have come from the defensive backfield. And only once since 1997 has a draft occurred without a player from the program's secondary being selected.
The current members of Virginia Tech's secondary take pride in this distinction, and the success of their predecessors provides them with extra motivation whenever the Hokies take the field. The opponent on Saturday may be Wake Forest, but at this point, the real challenge comes with living up to their predecessors.
"We're DBU," said former Hokie and current Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall, using a nickname all of the current defensive backs mention in conversation. "We're not always gonna be top 10 picks or top-ranked guys. But at the end of the day, when we get in the National Football League, we make plays."
This season, with first-year contributors such as Whitley, sophomore cornerback Jayron Hosley and freshman Antone Exum, the Virginia Tech secondary has been tested frequently. More often than not, it has performed well.
Facing a litany of pass-heavy offenses, the Hokies have given up more than 230 yards per game through the air. But the Hokies have broken up 30 passes so far, ranking them fourth in the country in that category. They have eight interceptions and opposing quarterbacks have completed 53 percent of their passes.
How is it, though, that the Virginia Tech secondary loses someone to the NFL almost annually, and yet continues to be a strength every year?
"To be honest, part of it is scheme and part of it is just having very talented players," said secondary coach Torian Gray, a former safety at Virginia Tech who was selected by the Minnesota Vikings in 1997. "I think we just allow them to do a variety of things, whereas some schools you'll go to, all you're gonna do is play two-deep or three-deep and be kind of vanilla."
Under defensive coordinator Bud Foster, the Hokies are known for sending blitzes on almost every play. A direct consequence of that is a secondary that's called on to provide impeccable coverage without much help.
But while most teams will either play man-to-man or zone on a given play, in Virginia Tech's system there is a boundary cornerback, who plays mostly man-to-man, and a more zone-oriented field cornerback. This year, senior Rashad Carmichael is the boundary cornerback, and his primary job is to shut down whomever he's covering. Hosley's responsibilities as a field cornerback are focused on his vision and playmaking abilities, and his four interceptions are tied for the most in the country.
The safeties, meanwhile, split duties. Both blitz, but Whitley, the free safety, tends to be in coverage. Senior Davon Morgan, known as the rover in Foster's scheme, is the hard-hitting enforcer.
"Basically, [Foster] believes in us," Whitley said. "He puts us in man-to-man sometimes because he believes we can lock them down while he blitzes for this and that. For somebody to put that much pressure on you, obviously, we don't want to let them down."
Part of that comes from their humble beginnings on campus. Out of this year's starting secondary, only Hosley was a four-star recruit. Whitley missed his entire senior season in high school with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Morgan is a converted quarterback and Carmichael had very few scholarship offers other than the one from Virginia Tech.
More than just talent, Gray and Foster look for a certain tenacity and swagger. While the names of past players are brought up on recruiting visits, more emphasis is put on how those NFL players developed during their time with the Hokies.
"When you can bring up names [like] Brandon Flowers, Macho Harris, DeAngelo Hall, they're familiar with those guys and they can see themselves in those shoes," Gray said. "If you're that caliber of a player, it doesn't make it as hard to sell [that] you can be like these guys, you can be coached like these guys. I'm not afraid to say, 'I'm the best secondary coach in the country.' "
Carmichael, a Clinton native who is the leader of this year's secondary, acknowledges there is a bravado that every Hokies defensive back must have, but it comes courtesy of lessons passed down from elders.
He remembers his initial summer in Blacksburg when he would work out with current Tennessee Titans safety Vincent Fuller, who was then preparing for his first NFL training camp. Fuller would tweak Carmichael's techniques and fundamentals, and the Gwynn Park High grad would try to emulate Fuller in practice.
This season, Fuller's younger brother, Kyle, is a freshman cornerback and Carmichael's primary back-up. Carmichael has returned the favor and taken Kyle Fuller under his wing, but really, he had no choice. At Virginia Tech, it's an obligation.
"There's so many guys that have made this DBU, the list just keeps going on," said Carmichael. "It's a pride thing, and I just want to keep it going."