Over the last two weeks, the Hokies’ secondary has been devastated by COVID-19. Against Duke, Tech was missing its entire two-deep at cornerback, and against North Carolina the safety room suffered nearly the same fate.
“We had a lot of young players out there who took a lot of snaps in situations that they probably shouldn’t have been in. We really had no other choice. I’m hopeful that they can recover and play,” Head Coach Justin Fuente said. “That does something to a guy when you’re a young player and you’re in a situation like that, not just physically, but mentally. Hopefully, those guys can recover and continue to develop and help us prop up that room.”
This concentrated outbreak has left the Hokies scrambling for answers in the back end of the defense. Every starter in the secondary has missed time through the last two games, which has led to Defensive Coordinator Justin Hamilton and the rest of the coaching staff experimenting with many different solutions.
Against Duke, it was walk-on Tyler Matheny stepping up with an interception and a sack in place of Divine Deablo. In Chapel Hill, linebacker Alan Tisdale was forced to step back to safety as well. Tech’s coaching staff has tried to piece together the secondary with anybody who was available, which has played a key role in the Hokies allowing an average of 43.5 points over the last two contests.
“We’re drawing stuff up on the sideline and trying to get 11 people out there. It was like eighth grade football,” Fuente said. “That’s what it was. I hate it for our kids, but that’s the situation we were in, and Alan went out there and did the best he could.”
Although the Hokies did have cornerbacks Jermaine Waller, Armani Chatman and Devin Taylor back on the field against the Tar Heels, they weren’t fully up to speed. In fact, Fuente said that the first time he saw Taylor in ten days was on Friday before suiting up to play the next day.
Even with Taylor and other corners back on the field for the game, without practice throughout the week, there weren’t many options for the Hokies to cross-train at safety.
“Getting guys back at corner will help us in some other places and open up the possibility for us to move some people around and be ready to go,” Fuente said. “Tyree Rodgers is going to work on academics, he’s not playing this year. Nasir Peoples is out for the season. Those guys aren’t returning, so we have to find a way to make it work.”
The only starter in the secondary not to miss a game due to COVID-19 is Chamarri Connor at whip. However, early in Saturday’s contest he was ejected for targeting, forcing Hamilton to scramble once again.
“The targeting penalty was a good call. It is a very difficult thing because those guys run, and you don’t know if they’re going to slide. I’m not making an excuse, it’s a penalty,” Fuente said. “It just puts you in a difficult situation sometimes, and we just have to be smarter football players than that. That’s a good call and a penalty.”
Young players like Matheny, true freshman Dorian Strong and redshirt freshman JR Walker have been thrown into the games whether they were ready or not. This experience should help their development as players, but they’re surely seeing the field much earlier than they expected.
“I think some of it has been really good. I’m not sure how beneficial it was to those young players last Saturday. I felt like they were in a little bit of an unfair situation,” Fuente said. “It has been nice to see some guys get a little bit of playing time and not shrink from the situation, but be excited to go play and compete. I’ve seen some growth there.”
The Hokies hope to have some of the key pieces back for Saturday’s game against Boston College. Divine Deablo has missed each of the last two games, and is expected to be ready for the game, but others like starting safety Keonta Jenkins are still up in the air.
Without any guarantee that the secondary will be back to full strength against the Eagles, the Hokies have to prepare to stop what has been an unusually high-powered offense through the air.
Quarterback Phil Jurkovec has completed over 65% of his passes while posting eight touchdowns through the air. Half of those have gone to sophomore Zay Flowers, who is averaging an unreal 19.3 yards per catch. Healthy secondary or not, the Hokies will have their hands full with Boston College.
“[Jurkovec] seems to me to be a big, strong kid. I’ve seen several blitzers bounce off of him. He’s kind of a Ben Roethlisberger type,” Fuente said. “He’s someone who is big and strong, and those guys have a hard time getting him down. I’ve seen him throw the old 15-yard in cut over the middle on a rope. He’s got a big, strong arm and then some good personnel around him.”
Tech has maneuvered its way through three games missing a lot of key players due to COVID-19. However, the number of ineligible players has fallen every week. The Hokies goal has to be that the number continues to drop.
“Around the same time that students returned to campus, we had a pretty large flare-up. NC State cancelled the first game, and we ended up not being able to play the next game,” Fuente said. “Since then, it has been a slow trickle. The last two weeks, it’s been really concentrated in places that were already thin to begin with. That’s had a pretty adverse effect on us.”