Virginia Tech wrapped up spring practice on April 20, although questions remain heading into the summer that won’t have more definitive answers until fall camp. Nevertheless, the spring cleared up some things. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be taking a look back at what the Hokies figured out and what remains a work in progress.
Today, we’ll cover the defensive backs. If you missed a previous installment, you can get to it here: quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends, offensive line, defensive line and linebackers.
– CB: Kyle Fuller, Sr. (starter), Brandon Facyson (Fr.)
– CB: Antone Exum, Sr. (injured), Donaldven Manning, So. or Donovan Riley, So. or Davion Tookes, r-Fr.
– FS: Detrick Bonner, Jr. (starter), Der’Woun Greene, r-Fr.
– ROV: Kyshoen Jarrett, Jr. (starter), Desmond Frye (So.)
The older players showed improvement after a full year at their current positions and the younger players started to come along. Fuller, Bonner and Jarrett all took steps forward this spring, being leaders and becoming more consistent on the back end. You could sense a greater comfort back there from all three. Manning and Riley got a good number of first-team reps with Exum out with a torn ACL, an important step for them to be trusted by defensive backs coach Torrian Gray. Manning was more consistent, but Riley made more big plays. Tookes began to come on late and could be a contender for the spot too. Facyson, an early enrollee, probably impressed the most of the young guys, not taking any hesitancy when thrust into the action for the first time. And Greene, who bounced around positions last year, had a good showing at the spring game, returning a Logan Thomas interception the length of the field for a touchdown.
The Hokies didn’t have Exum out there because of the injury, and while he’s a veteran who has a solid knowledge of the system, it’s never good to miss reps like that. His return date remains up in the air. August is the earliest he could come back, although that might be wishful thinking. The backups are still very inexperienced. Riley, Manning and Tookes showed flashes, although maybe still not enough for Gray to complete trust them out there (at this point, though, he doesn’t have a choice). Frye and Greene are in the same boat. The reserves still need some seasoning.
HELP ON THE WAY
The signing class was flush with defensive backs. And while Tech is still waiting to see if guys like Holland Fisher and Cequan Jefferson qualify for next year, there will be a talent influx nonetheless. Kendall Fuller, the youngest brother of the Fuller clan, could be someone who can compete for immediate playing time. Coaches raved about the five-star corner on signing day. It’s probably not a matter of if he can play as a true freshman, but when. He won’t supplant his brother on the depth chart, but he might get his shot at the other corner spot or as a nickelback. Coaches liked what they saw out of other signees like Anthony Shegog and Charles Clark, although things start to get crowded in the backfield at that point.
Based on how he picked things up in the spring, it’s got to be Facyson. He’s tall (6-2), rangy and seems to have a knack for breaking on the ball (it doesn’t hurt that the hopeful heart surgeon seems to have the academic side of things handled). He didn’t make too many glaring mistakes in scrimmages and I can rattle off several times where I remember him making an aggressive play on the ball. He doesn’t put a toe in to test the waters, not showing the usual hesitancy you see out of most freshman. Facyson worked as a boundary corner, but defensive coordinator Bud Foster was so impressed by Facyson that he thinks the Hokies might give him a shot at the vacant field corner spot come August.
BATTLE TO WATCH
With three returning starters, it’s clearly the corner spot left open by Exum. Who knows when he’ll be back and close to full strength? Everyone recovers differently from injuries like that. He might be ready for the opener against Alabama, but Tech has to prepare as though he won’t be healed by then. That leaves a glut of young players like Manning, Riley, Facyson and probably Kendall Fuller to compete for the starting spot at corner. It’s a place-holder thing. When Exum is ready, he’ll start. But finding a potential starter out of those four for the Crimson Tide will be a priority for the defense when camp begins.
THEY SAID IT
“Those guys were freshmen last year and sometimes it’s tough if you don’t get it. Athletically we might not be good enough. Fundamentally we might not be good enough. But now that they’ve been through it, I expect those guys to be a lot better this year.” — Gray
This had the potential to be the strongest group on the defense this year. Then Exum tore his ACL, throwing a wrench in the Hokies’ plans to return all four starters in the secondary at their same positions. That’s not to say Exum is a lost cause. By all accounts, he’s rehabbing like mad to get back in time for the season, but like I wrote before, everybody reacts differently to injuries. The trio of Kyle Fuller, Jarrett and Bonner should be much better now that they’ve got a year under their belts at their current spots. You could see them grow into their roles last year, coming a long way from the Pittsburgh debacle in September to the way they played down the stretch. If Tech can find a serviceable starter for however long Exum is out — and that’s a big if — and can create some depth behind those starters, this could be one of the strengths of the defense.