With Antone Exum's health now a concern, Virginia Tech suddenly has a hole in the secondary that might provide an opportunity for a young player to have immediate impact next season. Kendall Fuller seems best suited to fill in at Exum's spot at boundary, but third corner remains a question, especially with Detrick Bonner desperately needed at free safety. While Donaldven Manning, Donovan Riley, and Davon Tookes have experience, recruiting expert J.C. Shurburtt seems to think that Cequan Jefferson could fill that role.
Initially, Cequan Jefferson was a bit of an unknown quantity when he committed to Virginia Tech (his only offer) early in the 2013 recruiting process. After reading Shurburtt's comments, I decided to take a look for myself. What I found was an incredibly polished defensive back, whose highlights demonstrate the ability to play all three critical techniques for a Virginia Tech cornerback (off-man, inside out press, off-robber) right now. He also has incredibly fluid hips that allow him to be beaten and recover, and a natural aggressive ball-hawking ability that lends itself to playing disguised zones from the field corner position, read the quarterback, and then leave his man to make a play on the football.
Let's start with technique. Virginia Tech's field corner is most often playing 7 yards off the line of scrimmage on the outside shoulder of the receiver, angled slightly back to the inside of the field. In this alignment, he reads the quarterback's eyes, so he can quickly react and come defend the short flat on a screen or swing pass. The alignment usually gives the appearance that the slant route and skinny post are open, but Foster calls the alignment in conjunction with a linebacker alignment that at least encumbers a quick slant, and has a robber safety coming to deliver a big hit on the post. Sometimes QB's can thread the needle, and Kyle Fuller was picked on in that coverage this season, especially against UNC.
Here we have Jefferson lining up with the off robber alignment.
His alignment forces the receiver to the inside, where he has safety help. He is looking at the QB the whole time, and when the receiver breaks, he undercuts the route anticipating a throw from the quarterback. Jayron Hosley excelled at this technique from the field corner position (something that Shurburtt pointed out). Because Jefferson is looking at the QB, he also is able to peel away from the receiver and come up and make the tackle in run support. Run support was a major weakness of all the young Hokie DB's that challenged for the 3rd corner spot in 2012.
The second primary coverage technique is man-press. In man press, Jefferson will line up on the inside eye of the receiver, chuck him at the line of scrimmage and force him to take an inside release.
The critical skill for this coverage is to initiate contact at the line of scrimmage rather than react and fail to get a chuck, followed by the ability to have quick hips and turn and run with the receiver and then find the football. Exum was outstanding at this technique up to the point where he needed to get his head back around and find the football. Jefferson turns and recovers, gets his head back facing the quarterback, and intercepts the pass in stride in the end zone.
When playing man coverage, either pressing or off, fluidity in the hips and the ability to recover when beaten is critical. Here are two more examples of Jefferson's uncanny ability to recover on the receiver break and make a play on the football. First, he slows his back pedal to jump the out route, and then when he realizes there is a double move, he adjusts his hips into position to turn and run and he beats the receiver to the spot.
Next, he gets beaten on an in route from the slot, but recovers to tip the ball and without losing his balance, makes the catch on the tip.
This is scary good stuff here folks.
Perhaps most impressive is his ability to naturally make plays in robber coverage. On this play near the goal line, he is again playing a robber technique, looking in at the quarterback.
Once he determines that his receiver, who is stationary in the short flat, is only a decoy to prevent him from falling back into the deep third to take away the flag route by the slot receiver, Jefferson disengages from his man and follows the quarterback's eyes into the passing lane for an easy interception. I guarantee that quarterback never saw Jefferson, which are the most psychologically damaging turnovers for an offense. Jefferson's film is littered with these kinds of play. He is instinctive, attacks the football at the highest point (he also was utilized as a receiver), and polished. Oh, and he hands the ball to the official when he scores touchdowns. Just for good measure, he is adequate in run support, and is willing to throw his weight around if needed.
As with all freshmen, this is a highlight tape, and I would need access to much more regular game film to see things like motor, consistency, and other key factors in success at the college level, but in the limited snaps I have watched he is much more impressive than Manning's film last year. Size is a concern (he is listed at 5'9") so it will be worth watching how he performs in fall camp against bigger receivers like Coles and Caleb. He also has room for improvement in run support. But, I would not be stunned to see Kendall Fuller at boundary, Kyle on the slot, and Jefferson as the field corner in nickel situations this fall in Blacksburg if Exum is sidelined. He is a very impressive player, and the Hokies should be very happy that he was recognized as a potential impact player early in the recruiting process.