The safety position in Bud Foster's defense has a storied history, filled with unique athletes that could both cover man-to-man and play close to the line of scrimmage in run support. Since the graduation of Willie Pile, the Hokies have had a series of heady safeties that were solid in coverage, but didn't produce the interceptions and turnovers that some of the great Hokie safeties of the 90's had a reputation for producing. Even Kam Chancellor, who dominated the Super Bowl with his run support, did not generate many interceptions while a Hokie. The current pairing of Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner had a tremendous season serving as a safety net for the Hokies young corners. Jarrett also excelled in run support, while Bonner functioned well as a deep centerfield player and a serviceable cover man on the opponents third and fourth receivers. Both have operated essentially without competition as a series of recruiting failures left Torrian Gray with only inexperienced freshmen to spell both players. While Jarrett likely has an NFL future at free safety, the safety group as a whole lacks elite playmaking ability.
Enter C.J. Reavis. According to HokieSports.com, Reavis is a 6-0, 190 pound safety prospect from Thomas Dale High School (although he looks bigger on film). He was long targeted by Shane Beamer as a top recruiting priority. Following his verbal commitment last spring, Reavis quickly endeared himself to the Virginia Tech fan base by actively recruiting other Hokie targets via social media. Reavis is vocal, confident, and he loves Virginia Tech. With these traits being readily apparent, I was eager to review his film.
I had several surprises in store for me, no bigger of which was the revelation that Reavis' high school film features him playing extensively at the field side corner position (for those new to the site or new to the Hokie terminology, the "field" side is the wide side of the field). Normally, a guy playing out of position in high school always worries me, as it adds some time to re-learn key fundamentals at the new position. In base defense, the Hokies rover plays more man coverage (to the boundary side and usually against tight ends or running backs) while the free safety plays more of a free hitter, center field zone. Against spread teams and in the nickel, the free safety has the added responsibility of switching between being a deep safety and playing the third most dangerous receiver in a trips alignment to the field side.
It is really difficult to determine which position Reavis will start out at, because he has the skill set to excel at either the free safety position or rover. Part of that speculation is due to the presence of Holland Fisher. Fisher played close to the line of scrimmage as a weak side inside linebacker in high school and is terrific in run support, so you would think he would be a no brainer to play the eighth man in the box like Jarrett. However, he moved to free safety at Fork Union. C.J.'s ability to play man coverage may set him up for the rover spot, while Fisher plays a free ranging head hunter at free safety.
Reavis impresses on film in man coverage. He has a natural understanding of how different receivers can threaten his cushion, so he effectively presses players who he can be physical with at the line, and then can back off guys who can beat press coverage and read the quarterback.
Here's Reavis in press coverage.
Reavis is in press alignment, and at the snap he steps to the inside to take away the quick slant crossing his face. The receiver takes an outside release, and Reavis recovers nicely to turn and run with him. He gives the receiver with a slight hand check with his right hand, turns his head, and finds the football. He then is athletic enough to make a play on the football and deflect it at the highest point. Antone Exum was a tremendous coverage safety, but he always seemed to struggle to get his hips turned and find the football. Reavis has a natural feel for it. Sometime he gets a little too physical in coverage, so he will need to learn how to be more subtle with contact down field in coverage. Based on this film, I am not sure that C.J. would have the elite top-end speed to turn and run with a real burner at receiver, but playing rover or free safety means he would rarely face that kind of matchup. It is strange that so many of these plays feature quarterbacks trying to beat Reavis with 50/50 jump balls. It plays right into his strengths.
He is also very physical in run support. He loves to throw the high shoulder kill shot, but also has examples of solid form tackling. He likes contact and he isn't shy from delivering heavy shots.
The following is a play that really impresses me with how explosive he is from a dead standstill. Watching a couple of tackles he throws in run support look very similar to some of Kam Chancellor's hits in the Super Bowl.
When Reavis hits guys, they stop forward progress. As we saw with Chancellor, intimidating heavy contact early in the Super Bowl made the Bronco slot receivers and running backs hesitant to come into his space. I counted several plays where Knowshon Moreno tip-toed into good holes and ended up with a minimal gain; and Demaryius Thomas went backwards on several screens where he had easy first downs and made them much tougher plays. The Hokie safeties have been solid, but it has been a long time since Gray has had that intimidator in the secondary.
I love the physical play, but, one of the risks run with that style of tackling is sacrificing dependability for impact. Several of C.J.'s highlights are hard hits, but he doesn't even attempt to wrap his arms. The Hokies play a high risk defensive system, and a rover or free safety doesn't have much help if they miss. Also, Reavis has a tendency to sit back and wait on the ball carrier to run to him. You don't see him flying up from the safety spot to hammer guys. That is a bunch of extra yards he is letting those ball carriers acquire. He has to close and wrap his arms, but in his defense, as a corner he has to stay engaged with the receiver before selling out in run support.
Finally, Reavis is very vocal and demonstrative on the field. Gray's system of communication requires both the safety and the rover to understand defensive calls and checks, and then get that information to the corners. Reavis definitely will not have trouble getting his point across, and he plays with a confidence like he is the biggest cat in the jungle. You need that, especially in Foster's system where so much pressure is put on safeties.
Bonner and Jarrett are firmly entrenched for one more year at safety, but a versatile player like Reavis gives Gray the flexibility to move Bonner back to nickel corner if a third corner doesn't emerge in the fall. Reavis has terrific ball skills and physicality that make him a unique asset compared to the other options currently on the roster at safety, and his ability to cover means that he can play man coverage if forced to play as a freshman while he learns about all the different robber and zone concepts that the Hokies utilize. C.J. Reavis has been a primary target for a long time, and it is easy to see why.