Cornerback Adonis Alexander's academic ineligibility, coupled with Jeremy Webb's season-ending achilles injury, hit the Hokies like a tsunami last week. The lengthy 6-3 Alexander started 15 games at Tech and his NFL Supplemental Draft status has already received buzz. Webb was a 247Sports Composite 4-star (0.8979) JUCO transfer targeted specifically to come in and play right away. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster was already tasked to retool a defense which lost 4 NFL draft picks. On top of that, he has to game plan for Florida State without a single cornerback that has taken a meaningful snap at the position.
Foster's choices are limited and assessing those options is very difficult given the lack of film for each candidate. Bryce Watts supported the run and chipped in a nice tackle early in the spring game, but was removed very early in the scrimmage. That indicated to me Watts was already counted on as a sure-fire contributor and Tech didn't want to risk exposing him to injury.
"Bryce Watts I thought had a big-time spring," said Foster after the spring game. "He needs to attack the weight room and continue to get stronger. But from a coverage standpoint, the ability to run, I thought he had a big-time spring."
As Watts watched, Tyree Rodgers, JoVonn Quillen, and Jermaine Waller rotated at cornerback. When I watched Waller's high school film, I became impressed with his ability to find the football. On this play, the true freshman early enrollee shows press initially, but right before the snap he bails out to play outside leverage. By allowing a free release to the inside, Waller baits the throw on the post. Because he is looking at the quarterback, Waller can then anticipate the throw and undercut the route.
Yet, my biggest concern as I evaluated his film was when Waller was forced to turn and run with receivers attempting to stretch the field. I wasn't sure if he could run with top-end speed receivers. He ran more like a wide receiver, and didn't seem to have a second gear.
The spring game validated some of those observations. Waller broke up several passes when Josh Jackson and Ryan Willis attempted to stretch the field. However, Sean Savoy adjusted his alignment to the inside to create more space for an outside release. Waller did not have the recovery speed to close the gap. After a perfect fade throw by Willis, Savoy was off to the races for a touchdown.
After the spring game, Justin Fuente noted Waller was limited throughout spring practice due to an injured hamstring. Perhaps that handicapped some of his long speed. Still, to go out there with a handful of practices and a hurt hamstring, Waller made some plays that grabbed everyone's attention, including Foster's.
"He's got length," said Foster. "He just kind of does things naturally. I think he's got some thick skin, which you need to have at that position a little bit."
The 6-1, 179 pound D.C. product would benefit from a redshirt year to get stronger and more comfortable in run support. Unfortunately, at this point that seems like an unlikely luxury.
"I think he's got talent, he's young," said Fuente. "We don't have the time to pull him aside and say, 'Just relax, we'll call you in a couple of years when it's time to play.'"
Tyree Rodgers is the veteran of the group and started next to Watts. Rodgers struggled mightily on the day. He stumbled on the Willis touchdown to Phil Patterson after a terrific run fake drew the safety out of the middle of the field. Perhaps more unsettling from my perspective was a very poor effort by Rodgers in run support. Rodgers was the free hitter trailing Patterson from left to right on your screen) on the Deshawn McClease touchdown run and he fell on his backside right as McClease stepped into the hole.
One stumble, even on a touchdown run, would not be concerning. However, there were several runs where Rodgers was in position to make a tackle and seemed very unwilling to stick his nose in. Most memorable was the first solid Coleman Fox run of the scrimmage.
Rodgers (No. 39) squeezes inside and is unblocked. Fox cuts to his left, right into Rodgers' path. Rodgers is a bit too wide, but he is close enough to Fox to at least attempt an arm tackle. Instead, Rodgers seemingly freezes. Fox runs by him in the hole and then Rodgers is forced to chase the play. In my live notes, I jotted down of a handful of similar plays. Rodgers played a ton of snaps during the game and perhaps the full length film tells a different story. However, based on what I was able to notice, Rodgers' opportunity to start took a major hit in the scrimmage.
JoVonn Quillen, who was noticeable as a special teams performer last season, didn't get as many repetitions as Rodgers and Waller. I have worries about Quillen's ability to get out of his backpedal and his ability to find the football. However, Quillen had a solid performance during the spring game. The only catch I noted against Quillen was Patterson's spectacular one-handed, highlight reel effort. Besides that, Quillen (No. 26) made several sound tackles in run support. For example, on this Coleman Fox run, Quillen is engaged with a blocker and still is able to shed and deliver a solid form tackle on Fox.
I am unsure if Quillen will ever become an effective starter at corner. He plays a little stiff and doesn't seem to find the football quickly. He projects to be a CB who stays close in coverage, but will get beat on some 50/50 passes. However, I think you can steal some repetitions with him with the right defensive calls — play zone coverage and let him see the play in front of him and come up and support — and he will continue to be a valuable special teams performer.
The other options are mysteries. I have been very vocal about my opinion that Caleb Farley would be a huge difference-maker at wide receiver. Coming off an ACL injury, I also feel that corner would put more stress on his knee than at wideout. However, Foster finds himself in the position where he desperately needs Farley to be an All-ACC caliber corner sooner rather than later. Last spring Foster exclaimed about Farley at corner as a "dynamic athlete with dynamic potential". Hokie Nation should hope Foster's bullishness is justified.
Freshman early enrollee D.J. Crossen played cornerback for Dudley HS and perhaps is a possible option at the position. However, based on how his playing time was allocated in the spring game, Crossen seems slotted as a backup at free safety or whip/nickel. While there is a significant need at corner, Crossen struggled mightily in space against former Hokies recruit Bryce Thompson at the Carolina's Shrine Bowl. In particular, Crossen had a difficult time getting out of his backpedal when Thompson curled up against man coverage.
There is also value having a converted corner, who can cover man-to-man, at free safety. The comeback win over Arkansas is a great example. The biggest defensive adjustment Foster made in the Belk Bowl was playing Reynolds over whip Anthony Shegog. Reynolds found himself blitzing him off the edge while the free safety covered the slot man. I believe Crossen has higher upside long term at free safety.
The Hokies also have Nadir Thompson and DeJuan Ellis, a pair of young athletes and 2018 signees, who could make an impact on offense or defense. Thompson, an explosive athlete with incredible short straight-line speed, was likely already accounted for as part of the defensive secondary. Ellis signed as a QB, and fans have clamored for him to play in the slot, but he has the perfect frame and explosive change of direction to be an outstanding cornerback. If the veteran options don't pan out, I wouldn't be shocked if either got an opportunity to make noise at corner.
Right now, Bryce Watts appears penciled in at one CB spot. Reggie Floyd and Divine Deablo are a pair of rangy safeties, and with inexperience at corner, they will need to be sufficient in coverage to protect the newcomers. A big unknown is Mook Reynolds. Reynolds lined up at corner in high school all-star games, but he struggled some in a cameo at free safety last season, and whether or not he has the flexibility to slide out to the corner is unknown. It may not be the final lineup Foster rolls out against Florida State, but because of his experience I wouldn't be shocked to see Reynolds to take first team repetitions at corner opposite of Watts on the opening day of camp. If Farley can turn heads at CB as quickly as he did at WR, Reynolds can move back to free safety or whip/nickel. Deablo suffered a foot fracture last season and was limited with an injury this spring. Reynolds' experience at free safety will likely require the lone returning multi-year starter to move around until the group finds their footing. Devon Hunter, the crown jewel of Tech's 2017 recruiting class, gained a spring's worth of experience at whip/nickel in Reynolds' absence. The possibility of Hunter starting at whip/nickel would allow Foster to move Reynolds to safety or corner as needed.
This season will appear to be a huge test for Foster. Historically, two positions have yielded the biggest impact for the Virginia Tech defense. When the Hokies' defensive tackles are solid, the Hokies' run defense is usually one of the best in the nation. When the Hokies have three solid corners, the Hokies usually are strong against opposing passing games. And when the Hokies have an NFL-caliber cornerback capable of taking away a third of the field in man-to-man, Virginia Tech can use combo coverages to completely unsettle most quarterbacks. Beyond Ricky Walker this season, all of those tools are unknown or nonexistent. It will be fascinating to see how Foster adjusts his scheme to put his inexperienced corners in the best position to be effective.