The Virginia Tech secondary took its fair share of lumps during the 2018 season. It was an inexperienced unit, especially the cornerbacks, who were all first-time starters.
Now, with a year of experience under their belts, the cornerbacks are anticipating a strong spring to make headway before the season.
“I see more of a cohesive group of guys being assignment-sound, feeling more confident about their responsibilities,” cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell said.
“It’s a process. I don’t look at it any other way than game by game. How can we get better each and every day? And that’s the approach I took last fall. Can we get better today? And I think it’s paying dividends now because in this sport, the learning curve is getting out there and processing information, reading splits, getting into an environment that’s going to allow you to get those reps… But, this is still Virginia Tech. We’re still striving for perfection and trying to put a great product on the field so we can represent this university.”
With such a young group last year, Mitchell noted how at times he would have to bring the players onto the couch in his office and play the role of therapist. While he’s had players like Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson in previous years, 2018 was a different test for Mitchell, and one that brought him back to the basics of coaching.
“Probably the most fun I’ve had coaching in a long time,” Mitchell said. “Because I’ve had a bunch of experienced guys. Now you go back to your foundation, your roots, and you’re coaching every day. You’re coaching line upon line and precept upon precept. And it doesn’t get any better than that in coaching. Yeah, it’s frustrating that you don’t get the results, but you can see the guys are starting to get over the hump a little bit. Now it’s paying dividends this spring.”
Virginia Tech returns the trio of Caleb Farley, Bryce Watts, and Jovonn Quillen, who received the bulk of the playing time at corner last season. During the offseason, Watts has bulked up some, bumping his weight up to 180 pounds so he can sustain the reps that are needed as an every down corner. Quillen, one of seven seniors on the roster, garnered a significant increase in reps last year while still being a star on special teams.
It’s Farley, however, who possesses a ton of raw talent at cornerback, but is still learning the intricacies of the position after switching over from wide receiver last year. The talent is undeniable, as seen in the opener with two interceptions versus Florida State, but mind lapses that come with inexperience ultimately tied up his feet at other times.
“His football IQ is growing,” Mitchell said. “He’s still very inquisitive. He still has a lot of questions, but he’s asking the right questions. And that’s a good thing, so he’s on the right track. But I think just getting those game reps under their belt, seeing it and processing it, now the game is starting to slow down a little bit, instead of just going out there and reacting. Now they can be a little bit more proactive and make plays.”
Much of the cornerback position isn’t just about the strides in pass coverage that amasses the majority of the attention. Another key aspect is helping out in run support and wrapping up ball carriers on the outside. It was an area where the unit fell short last year in many instances.
“[Tackling is] one of the areas that I wanted to focus in on,” Mitchell said. “Not only just the football IQ or the eye progression and things like that, but we needed to be a more physical unit… every day we’ve had a practice, we focus in on tackling. That’s going to be one of the things that we’re going to be better at. If we only improve one percent, we’re going to be better.”
Jermaine Waller, Armani Chatman, and Nadir Thompson represent the young core of players who are waiting in the wings. Fuente noted that they will all have a chance to push and create competition in the back end.
One name that hasn’t been mentioned yet is redshirt junior Jeremy Webb. Webb missed all of last season with a torn Achilles suffered during the first summer work out, and went down again during the winter with the same injury to his other Achilles. Despite not seeing the field in a Hokies uniform yet, Fuente raved about his leadership ability.
“He carries a certain weight with those guys,” Fuente said. “It’s kind of weird. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a guy that’s never played carry as much weight with the younger players as I have with Jeremy. It’s a neat thing to see. I know everybody on our team is anxious to get him back. How it all works out, we’ll worry about [later]. Right now let’s get him healthy.
“Him and Dalton Keene were at practice the other day, and him and Dalton are walking around doing their rehab or conditioning or whatever they’re allowed to do during practice. I just hollered out to them to make sure they knew that those two guys are huge parts of the 2019 Virginia Tech Hokies. They both kind of smiled. You can’t wait to get guys like that back.”
In the meantime, Virginia Tech’s wide receivers will continue to challenge the cornerbacks out there on the field throughout the rest of the spring.
“It’s important for our corner position that Damon Hazelton practiced, that they go against Damon, that they go against Tre [Turner], that they go against Phil Patterson,” Fuente said. “It’s important for us to continue to facilitate that through the next eight or nine practices so we can continue to evaluate and see how much better we can get.”
Dax Hollifield Slimmed Down
Dax Hollifield came to Blacksburg last year close to 250 pounds. His playing weight was listed as 243, but it was still too heavy, especially for the backer position where Hollifield was inserted. At times, it caused the jacked-up linebacker to be exposed in coverage.
“Fall camp and the season, it’s just hard to burn out and get stronger and leaner while you’re playing football,” Hollifield said. “So after this break during January, my goal was to get very lean and try to play between 230 and 235, but just body fat, try to shed that all off. No more baby fat. And I feel a lot better. I feel a lot faster and a lot stronger, just I feel like an overall better football player because of that.”
Now weighing 233 pounds, Hollifield is in a better position to excel at backer next to Rayshard Ashby at mike. Bud Foster trusts his unit more heading into the spring, and it’s allowed Hollifield to begin to anticipate plays without the hesitancy he had while playing as a freshman.
“This spring I’ve learned so much more,” Hollifield said. “The game has slowed down a lot, and looking back I was very hesitant last year when I shouldn’t have been. Now it’s just flowing and … If I could have been a little bit faster last year, it would have helped me out a lot making some more plays. I was just a step slow.”
Part of Hollifield’s development heading into his sophomore season not only has to do with physical maturity, but also mental maturity. Last year, Hollifield was almost too energetic at times. Fuente has seen him able to control that energy for when it’s needed during the spring.
“He certainly has a better handle on trying to guide that missile,” Fuente said. “At times he has been a little of an unguided missile out there. I mean that as a compliment. That’s the way you want him. It’s a lot better to teach him to say ‘woah’ than to teach him to say ‘go’. He continues to get more comfortable with what we’re asking him to do which can allow him to play faster, maybe even faster than he actually is. I’ve seen him take large strides in that direction through the spring.”
TyJuan Garbutt Growing Physically
When defensive end TyJuan Garbutt arrived on campus, he had one of the least amounts of body fat of anyone on the team, estimating that it was four or five percent. He had a ways to go physically to become the dominant defensive end that he could be for the Hokies.
“Since then, coach [Ben] Hilgart and [Ryan] Shuman — he works with all the bigger guys — they’ve done a good job setting in stone each type of calories I need to get so I can get to a certain weight at this point of the week all the way to before camp, when we reach really our last weigh-in days before we get the pads cracking,” Garbutt said.
While following his five meals, 3,500-4,000 calories a day diet, Garbutt has gotten himself bigger and into position for a breakout spring, one that helps establish the real LPD back in place.
“He’s in the process of having a very good spring,” Fuente said. “He has a unique ability to twist and contort his body to get his pad level down and slide through places to make plays. I think he’s got a lot of talent. He’s a tough player. Maybe the most grateful kid we have in our program.
“I think he has a bright future. He’s got to continue to get better. He’s got to continue to concentrate on his diet and his calorie intake so that he can maximize his training throughout the summer leading into the season. I’ve been really encouraged by him.”