Virginia Tech's defensive brand is identified in-part by the lone corner shutting down the boundary side of the field. The NFL has recognized the Hokies' propensity for taking undervalued high school recruits and turning them into valuable professional commodities. In recent years, three-star cornerbacks Kyle Fuller, Brandon Facyson, and Greg Stroman have all developed into productive NFL corners. Now, Virginia Tech features two of the most well regarded corners in the ACC, with Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller both potential candidates for the 2021 NFL draft.
Coverage snaps per reception allowed in 2019 among power-5 CBs:1. Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech - 20.91. Jermaine Waller, Virginia Tech - 20.9 pic.twitter.com/iqeXC4FtKy— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 9, 2020
The spotlight on Farley and Waller presents a pathway to the field for a skilled incoming freshman recruit. Chatsworth, CA cornerback DJ Harvey heard the call. The 247Sports Composite rates him as a 3-star (0.8869) and the 28th overall cornerback in the country. The 5-11, 166 pound Harvey is a refined cornerback with all the physical skills to be proficient at man and zone coverage, even as a freshman. Harvey gets in and out of breaks quickly, has flexible hips to change direction and great explosion to close gaps. Harvey also has excellent ball skills and does a wonderful job of finding and high-pointing the football.
Harvey's most impressive attributes are great bend and quick hips.
On this out and up, Harvey plays man coverage with an inside leverage technique. Harvey disguises the technique pre-snap by positioning with his left (outside) foot forward. As Harvey starts his backpedal, he turns his butt to the middle of the field and plays the receiver inside-out.
When the receiver plants to cut out, Harvey's back faces directly towards the middle of the field. Harvey plants on his left foot and stays right in stride with the receiver cutting to the sideline. Then, the receiver turns back up the field. Harvey plants his right foot and, with his back now facing the opposing end zone, turns to close on the receiver. So often, Tech corners playing this technique get beaten on the second break and give up separation. They then have to close the gap and don't have time to turn and find the football. Harvey stays right on the inside hip of the receiver without allowing any significant separation. As the receiver reaches up, Harvey pivots and high points the football for a spectacular interception. This is the type of big time change of direction and flexibility I have not seen out of a Virginia Tech cornerback commitment since Kendall Fuller.
Kendall Fuller's only weakness in his high school film was his ability to close when separation already existed, for example in an off-man or zone coverage. On the play below, Harvey played a softer coverage, again with inside leverage.
When the receiver breaks outside, Harvey plants off his left foot, closes the space, and gets both hands on the football to score a pass break up. During fall camp of Facyson's freshman season, he made a similar play during a public scrimmage I attended. That play had me out of my seat. Harvey plays his technique well, and has the explosion to get out of his backpedal and make plays.
If zone coverage is emphasized more under first-year defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton, Harvey demonstrates that he can be a dangerous threat sitting back in a zone watching the quarterback. On this pass, Harvey dropped into a deep third in a Cover 3. Harvey was responsible for the area from the left hash mark to the sideline.
After an excellent chuck by the linebacker to force the tight end to the inside on his release, the tight end runs a deep out. Harvey mirrors the tight end to make sure he remains between the tight end and the sideline without the tight end threatening Harvey's cushion vertically. When the tight end cuts outside, Harvey reads the cut and jumps the route. Staying sound in his outside zone technique allows Harvey to see the quarterback and maintain proper positioning on the tight end. Matched with Harvey's reaction time and ball skills, the poor decision by the quarterback ends up as a Harvey touchdown.
Harvey's ability to plant and attack back inside from an outside leverage technique takes away some of the easy inside breaking routes. When a corner plays outside leverage, he should have help from the safety or linebacker if the receiver runs an inside route. However, the prevalence of RPO quick slants often pulls the inside leverage out of position, providing for seemingly easy completions.
Above, Harvey plays outside leverage. He explodes out of his plant when the receiver breaks inside and he closes the gap and makes a play on the football. The tip generates an easy interception for Harvey's late arriving safety help.
As with any recruit, Harvey has components of his game that he needs to work on too. He is quick in small areas, but doesn't appear to have big time long speed. His aggressiveness jumping short routes coupled with average speed causes him to use his hands a little too much when he guesses wrong, as evidenced on this double move.
He aggressively jumps the stutter step by the receiver. As Harvey turns to bail, he chucks the receiver with both hands. While this is often necessary in man coverage to prevent a big play, it also brings a potential pass interference into play. I like the aggressiveness, but he has to bump a little more subtly.
Harvey's film didn't have much work against the run, but what was shown revealed a need to get stronger and more physical. On the play below, Harvey maintained proper outside leverage to spill the quarterback back into the defensive pursuit coming from the middle of the field.
While he does his job, and plays in an area with a reputation for producing excellent football players, I would like to see a player with his athleticism shed that blocker more assertively and finish the play. Weight room strength gains will help with that process.
Similar to former Hokies corners Macho Harris and Deangelo Hall, Harvey mentioned he's open to play offense and special teams to contribute sooner.
"They want to put me everywhere that they can to put me in a spot to succeed," said Harvey. "If that's playing safety, or playing offense, or playing special teams, doesn't matter. They want to do whatever they can to get me on the field. If that means I play nickel my freshman year, then safety my sophomore year, then corner my junior year that's fine as long as I can succeed and help the team."
Harvey brings several attractive qualities to special teams, particularly as a punt returner. In his highlights, he demonstrates a north-south running style. He gets up the field quickly, and uses his quickness in tight spaces to flip the field, instead of taking higher risk attempts to change direction or run wide (which usually result in the loss of field position more often than generating big gains).
While I love Harvey's potential as a punt returner, he also needs to be better at fielding the punt. In several highlights, he allows the football to hit the ground before he fields it off the bounce. In college, catching the ball in the air (fair catch or not) does more to positively impact field position than anything else a punt returner can do. He will need to field the ball more consistently in order to have an opportunity to make magic happen on special teams.
Harvey is also a very proficient receiver. His ball skills combined with his quickness getting of his breaks make him a strong route runner on short and intermediate routes from the slot.
It will be interesting to track if Harvey is ultimately used on offense. While he certainly has the ability to contribute, I see him more as a reliable possession receiver operating from the slot (if he concentrated on offense), rather than someone who can potentially change a game with a limited number of offensive snaps. Given how high his value is as a corner, I believe the staff will ultimately focus on him being a dominant every-snap corner instead of a gadget offensive contributor.
After reading this, it should go without saying that along with Mattheus Carroll, Harvey is my favorite commitment in the Hokies' 2021 class thus far. Harvey provides Virginia Tech a lockdown corner who can potentially take away a full third of the field against a single receiver. After the Hokies have recently turned a series of corners with little experience into potential NFL prospects, Harvey presents Justin Hamilton with a polished product to refine and showcase.