On Saturday, the Hokies received a commitment from 6-3, 205 pound safety prospect Adonis Alexander. Alexander, rated as a three-star recruit by the 247Sports Composite from Independence High School in Charlotte, NC, spoke with Thekeyplay.com's Alex Koma prior to his commitment and indicated that the opportunity to play at the rover position at Tech was a major factor of his decision. Alexander discussed being a huge fan of Kam Chancellor, which isn't surprising given that former Hokie Chancellor made numerous impact plays against the inept Peyton Manning in the last Super Bowl.
When I flipped on the film, a different oversized Hokie safety popped into my mind, former Green Bay Packer Aaron Rouse. Rouse played the rover position at a robust 6-4, 220-ish pounds and was feared across the ACC as a physical run support safety. Like Rouse, Alexander is a big safety who likes to read the play, close in the alley, and put the runner on the ground. Alexander has terrific second step speed, meaning that once he gets going, he has outstanding closing speed. He doesn't look fast, but he takes away space quickly with each stride. The rover position also requires man coverage on the secondary receiver aligned to the boundary side of the field (often tight ends, but on occasion the rover has to cover a slot receiver). Rouse was an intimidating physical presence in the passing game, but occasionally struggled in coverage. Alexander's film paints a similar picture.
In the spring, I wrote how critical the rover and free safety are in Bud Foster's scheme to stop the zone stretch series. The contain defender either forces the back to cut inside or spill to the sideline. The safety is the alley player. If the contain man has a force call, the safety has to fill the alley. If the contain player makes a spill call, the safety has to run to the sideline and make the tackle. It is critical for the safety to run laterally, turn up, and make a sure tackle.
Alexander looks tremendous in this role. On this play, Independence's opponent runs a zone stretch play.
The Independence contain defender forces the play inside. Alexander steps laterally to track the tailback's path. When the tailback commits to the cutback, Alexander commits to filling his alley responsibility. He closes the gap and beats the tailback to the hole. When he arrives, he maintains forward momentum, tackles low with great explosion, and he rips his arms up through the tackler.
A vast majority of Alexander's highlights showcase him aligned as a centerfield or boundary safety, anywhere from 7 to 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. Here, Independence defends against a counter trey.
Alexander is the last line of defense, so he remains deep as the play develops to make sure the quarterback has not executed a play fake. One he diagnoses the play, Alexander closes the space, maintaining inside-out leverage. Note the plant and change direction as the back cuts outside. Alexander adjusts and his wingspan and closing speed eats the tailback up.
After suffering a hip injury in ninth grade, Alexander said in his interview with The Key Play that he struggled with his hip flexibility. The film supports his self assessment. Alexander starts plays aligned as a deep safety. Before the ball is snapped, Alexander stands almost completely. After the ball is snapped, Alexander stays upright until he commits to coming forward in run support. While playing tall (especially at 6-3) gives a great view of the play developing, it also makes it more difficult to transition from reading the play to pursuit. Try it yourself. Go to a track, and run a 10 yard dash with someone timing you, but start in a comfortable couch with your knees bent. Then, do the same thing, but start standing straight up and down. I bet you will run faster from the crouch. For Alexander, this causes him a slight delay to crouch before committing to run support. Also, he has a tendency to take a false step (a step that gets you started but doesn't cause your body to move in the intended direction). As result, Alexander hits like a missile, but the runners get an extra couple of yards as result.
This clip highlights these habits, which Alexander will have to correct before he can be an every down rover at Virginia Tech.
At the snap, Alexander is almost standing straight up. His first step is with his left foot across his body (which is slower than shuffling leading with the right foot). He then takes a bit of a false step before committing forward. This allows the back to get a little extra yardage. However, once Alexander commits, he closes 4 yards in two quick strides and delivers a blow. You can't teach the closing speed and outstanding tackling.
Alexander also has great bend. In each of these highlights, he changes direction sharply and adjusts well to cutting backs. He exhibits the same bend on this blitz. Much like I saw in Trevon Hill, Alexander uses his speed and the angle to come around the edge, but he bends his body to close down the pocket.
Alexander's size, ability to change direction to find the football, and to blitz off the edge suggest that Alexander could transition to backer if he struggles with the man coverage and run support responsibilities of rover.
If Alexander does want to player rover, he will have to cover tight ends and slots in man coverage. In his highlight reel, Alexander is playing almost exclusively as a deep safety playing in zone. His eyes are in the backfield reading the play developing. In that system, he is a physical threat who can punish receivers.
His ability to cover in man is a bit of a mystery. The tightness and lack of bend in his hips could mean that he is a risk to be caught flat footed. However, given that Alexander understands the weakness and is working to improve his flexibility and backpedal, he certainly could become an effective rover.
The Hokies also lacked depth of strong tacklers with speed, size, and range on special teams. That weakness cost Coach Beamer wins against Boston College and turned a close game into a blowout against the Crimson Tide. At 6-3, with long arms, great closing speed, and strong tackling ability, Alexander could make an immediate impact in kickoff and punt coverage. The Hokies have built their program on finding diamonds in the rough with special skill sets that were overlooked by other programs. Alexander certainly fits the profile.