As Virginia Tech prepares for the start of the 2016 season, two young players in the secondary will get opportunities to shine as starters.
Mook Reynolds, a sophomore, and Greg Stroman, a junior, both played important roles in the Hokies’ secondary last season. Both played in all 13 games last season, filling pivotal roles as cornerbacks. Stroman will start at cornerback on Saturday, while Reynolds will start at whip linebacker.
He’s technically listed as a whip, but Reynolds is playing a sort of hybrid position, where he’ll stay in when Tech uses nickel and dime packages.
Reynolds says the role isn’t all that different than what he played in high school.
“If there was a four-wide, I would drop back into safety, in different formations I would be an outside linebacker,” Reynolds said. “I’m pretty used to it.”
Even though he’ll be playing close to the box in certain packages, Reynolds said he isn’t worried about being a smaller guy.
“I don’t think the role requires you to get any bigger, that’s something that’s a plus or a bonus,” Reynolds said. “I don’t think you have to try to gain weight to play it or excel in it. It’s just different techniques. I’m a smaller guy, so I have to approach things differently than a bigger guy.”
In order to prepare, Reynolds asked cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell who were some of the best at playing that hybrid role. Reynolds said that Mitchell suggested watching KJ Dillon, who played at West Virginia from 2012-2014. Dillon, who now plays for the Houston Texans, played under Mitchell at West Virginia.
Reynolds has also watched former Virginia Tech safety Cody Grimm, who works for Virginia Tech as a graduate assistant.
“He had me watch his highlights a couple times,” Reynolds said. “I’ve looked at Cody a lot, especially with my blitzes. I try to use my feet a lot but I want to be able to destroy a block, get past a guy. He’s been teaching me a lot of technique, a lot of skills I can use to take on running backs, tackles, guards, anybody.”
“I talk trash to him and tell him they’re ‘low-lights’,” Reynolds joked.
Reynolds said that he’s putting high expectations on himself to adapt to the new role and help make an impact on defense.
“I want to do big things. I expect a lot from myself,” Reynolds said. “I just want to be able to please myself and I know I have to have a big time reason. I keep telling myself in the back of my mind, ‘Go get what you want to accomplish, go get what you set out to get.’ I just want to please myself and excel for me personally.”
Stroman will start presumably in place of Adonis Alexander, who is suspended for the Liberty game. He’s looking forward to taking advantage of the opportunity.
“I just want to show what I have and what I want to do to help my team,” Stroman said.
Reynolds said that he’s seen Stroman develop a lot as a player this offseason.
“(Stroman) is ready,” Reynolds said. “He’s made a lot of strides from last year to this year. I think he’s had more time to settle in his position. He made a lot of plays throughout spring and throughout camp. A lot of times last year, he’d be there but he wouldn’t quite make it. This year, (Stroman) has had a big time camp. I know he’s ready mentally and physically for this year.”
“I feel like I’m finishing plays and that’s what I have to do in the game,” Stroman said.
One name you’ll get to know pretty quickly on offense is Chris Cunningham, a redshirt freshman who will be playing the tight end/H-back role.
“The tight end role in this offense is kind of like the H-back role, where you move around, flexed out, on the ball, they’re using me in the same way,” Cunningham said. “With how they’re using me, it’s sort of like a Jordan Reed, hybrid type, or Vernon Davis when he played with the 49ers. Sometimes I’ll be split out wide, off the ball, sometimes in the backfield in a running back sort of position, or like an on the ball tight end. The tight end is very versatile in this offense, they use them a lot, like to create mismatches and just try to open up the field more.”
Cunningham said that while he, Sam Rogers and Steven Peoples have been working at the tight end/H-back role, Bucky Hodges has been almost exclusively working on the outside with the receivers.
“He’s more out wide because he’s a bigger target, like a Mike Evans or something like that,” Cunningham said. “They come and bring him in sometimes every now and then if they need to.”
Head Coach Justin Fuente said on Monday that Cunningham really took advantage of the offseason program to develop his physical attributes.
“The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Chris and his development, in the nine months that I’ve known him, is how productive his summer was, in terms of continuing to change his body. We don’t have a roster riddled with traditional, true tight end guys. Obviously, Bucky can move in there and do some things there, but Bucky is a little bit different playing on the line of scrimmage and that sort of stuff. He’s not huge, but he can move around a bit and play that tight end, H-back role, playing off the line of scrimmage. He’s made big strides, he’s got a lot of work to continue to do, but he’s made big strides.”
“When you have a new coaching staff that comes in, you’re just trying to learn everything,” Cunningham said. “The new offense, how they do things, the up-tempo, everything. Coach Fuente and Coach Hilgart in the summer, I have to give a lot of credit to them. It helped me out a lot, as far as body weight, trimming down a lot of body fat, a lot of running, we ran every day.”
Cunningham said that even though he’s excited to play, he’s not really anxious about things.
“We have 25 or 29 practices before the first game, so the jitters kind of get out a little bit,” Cunningham said. “It’s my first game, and we’re not there yet. It’s almost here.”
Charley Wiles Excited to Be Working With New Staff
Defensive Line Coach Charley Wiles addressed the media for the first time this offseason and praised his depth at defensive tackle. Seniors Woody Baron and Nigel Williams are slated to start, with Tim Settle and Ricky Walker backing them up.
“I think we’ve played pretty solid in the four guys who have gotten the reps,” Wiles said. “Steve Sobczak is really the fifth guy right now and he’s really been respectful and solid in camp. We need to stay healthy there and keep getting better. Tim Settle has never played a game. He’s only going to get better the more he plays. If we keep everybody healthy, I think we can be pretty solid there.”
Wiles said that playing up-tempo teams is difficult when the opponent is trying to run 80 or more plays on offense at a quick pace, but that he wouldn’t be playing guys if he didn’t feel they could compete.
“You’ve got to have the guys to do it. We’re not going to play guys we don’t trust,” Wiles said. “We have to know what kind of performance we’re going to get. If we have depth there and they’ve earned it, then we’ll play them. It’s a lot harder playing D-line rather than a lot of other positions because you’re always chasing the ball and fighting, as opposed to, you don’t block behind the ball. If you’re protecting the passer, you don’t get as tired as rushing the quarterback. It’s hard to play. I mean teams are trying to play 100 plays a game. You’ve got to have some depth at defensive line.”
“You play too many plays in there man, and your production goes down,” Wiles said. “We’ll have those guys around 35 plays.”
Meanwhile, at defensive end, Wiles said that Seth Dooley and Houshun Gaines are still in competition behind Trevon Hill, who will be the first defensive end to come into the game to relieve starters Ken Ekanem and Vinny Mihota.
Dooley is still working his way back from shoulder surgery after last season.
“Seth needs to continue to grow. I mean, he gave us some quality snaps a year ago, as a backup,” Wiles said. “He is in the same role right now. Is he going to be the first guy in the game? Probably not. Trevon Hill is going to be the first guy in the game. It wouldn’t matter which guy went down, Trevon would be the next defensive end.”
Gaines, who is also suspended for the Liberty game, has shown flashes of being a good player, but hasn’t brought it all together just yet.
“(Gaines) has been a little up and down, inconsistent,” Wiles said. “Again, it goes to our policy, my policy, on consistent performance. Your worst and your best shouldn’t that far apart. It’s about knowing what we’re going to get and being consistent and we’re working with that on all of our young guys.”
Wiles, who’s worked at Virginia Tech since 1996, said that he’s enjoyed working with a largely new staff on the defensive side of the ball.
“It’s exciting. It’s been rejuvenating, invigorating,” Wiles said. “It’s been great. Coach (Fuente) has all kinds of energy and there’s obviously a lot of ways to skin a cat. I’ve enjoyed it and it’s certainly been exciting.”
Wiles said that being around new coaches like Mitchell and Safeties Coach Galen Scott has allowed him to learn and grow as a coach.
“That’s one of the shortfalls of staying in one place,” Wiles said. “My circle’s not very big. I haven’t been a lot of places, but there’s a whole lot of positives, but its been nice seeing other ways of doing things and meeting new people, new coaching. It’s part of the exciting… I got a new job without having to move. I live in my house still.”