To play cornerback at a high level, you need supreme confidence…a confidence that seems somewhat arrogant on occasion, but is backed up on the field time and time again. It’s a confidence that often comes with time, which makes the emergence of Dorian Strong in Virginia Tech’s cornerback room as a true freshman even more of an anomaly.
From the point Strong stepped foot on campus, he’s displayed a unique belief in himself that paved the way for a standout freshman campaign.
“I’m 18 years old,” Strong said. “It’s like, ‘how is an 18-year-old kid going to lead a 20-year-old guy’ or something like that?
“Basically it’s just show them you can hang and show them you can beat them and that you won’t back down basically. If they try to get in the front of the line, ‘Nah, I’m in front. It’s me.’ Stuff like that. Being a vocal leader in the weight room. A guy doing his last squat, ‘C’mon get it, you got it.’ Stuff like that.”
Strong was a talent in high school that very nearly didn’t get recognized largely because he was still a smaller, skinny player. For much of his recruiting process, he was producing on the field, but still didn’t receive any stars on his recruiting profile.
“It fueled me,” Strong said. “I know the talent that I have, and I’m competing with them. I’m even better than them, or I’m saying I’m giving them work as in all the so-called four stars and five stars.
“I feel like I still had that weight, like I have to prove myself. I surprised a lot of people because you know I’m not the biggest guy. But it’s just like, ‘Whoa, who’s that guy?’ I like surprising people, giving people that shock, like ‘Who’s this guy?’”
Before his senior season, Strong was still heavily into football and track and field. Dr. Henry Wise High School football coach DaLawn Parrish had a conversation with Strong letting him know that he had to pick one to put most of his energy into.
It led to Strong participating in seven-on-seven football where he performed at a high level and earned his three stars. The next step was to attend a camp and put his skills to the test once more. That first camp that he decided to visit just so happened to be a Virginia Tech satellite camp. From there, the rest was history.
“After my senior year and when Tech offered me I knew, ‘OK, they weren’t scared to pull the shot, to pull the trigger with me like these other schools that I was talking to.’ When it came down to signing and all that stuff, I was never going to change, and my heart was here. These coaches really trust me, so I’m going to trust them and put in the work for them and myself.”
The Upper Marlboro, Maryland native arrived in Blacksburg with not much expected of him for his freshman campaign. After all, the Hokies were returning two All-ACC cornerbacks in Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller. Strong began his time in Blacksburg practicing with the third string defense, but that quickly began to change as the dominos started to fall.
“Once Caleb opted out, I was like, ‘OK, there’s a spot there.’ When Jermaine was going through what he was going through with his injuries and stuff, I took the opportunity,” Strong said. “I’m like, ‘OK, it’s time for me to really focus in on the little details, the film, the extra film, extra in the weight room, extra on the field.’ Locking in and actually knowing, ‘OK, you can do this.’
“When it happened that Brion [Murray] and Armani [Chatman] went out against Duke when they had corona, they said, ‘You know you’re going to start.’ I wasn’t nervous, like of course I was nervous, but I was 100 percent ready because I knew. I just trusted my coaching, trusted my talent, all of that.”
In that first start against Duke where Virginia Tech was depleted in the secondary, Strong quickly made a name for himself with five tackles and a pass breakup. It was a harbinger to the Hokie Nation that this isn’t just a freshman being thrown into the fire because of a lack of available options, but someone who could make a difference the entire season.
The 6-foot, 174-pound corner continued to develop throughout the season with the help of the coaching staff. Cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith was honest with Strong every day, telling him “the good, bad, and ugly.” Assistant Director of Player Personnel Corey Fuller acted as a mentor and a shoulder to lean on for Strong.
Strong says he also owes a lot of credit to the older and more experienced players in the secondary, particularly Divine Deablo and Devin Taylor.
“Dorian Strong is just a big-time player, and he works really hard at practice every day,” Deablo said back in the fall. “He’s going to be big time. I can see it in his eyes. He comes to work, and I think that has the biggest impact.”
“The biggest thing I see in him is just the confidence he has in himself,” Taylor said. “Even in practice if he gets a ball caught on him, he’ll come back the next play and won’t let it happen. He really has a lot of confidence in himself.”
That group in the secondary made it a commitment to challenge one another and hold each other accountable every step of the way. Ironically, it was Strong, the freshman, leading the way.
“With Deablo, it was just every practice I would lift him up,” Strong said. “I’m telling him, ‘OK, you gotta catch this pick and be kind of perfect throughout practice.’ He would try to hold me to the same standards. I would uplift those standards. [Deablo’s] a great player. He sees something in me that I also see in myself.
“Devin came late and I was nervous because he’s coming in as a corner and you’re going to have to compete with him. ‘OK, don’t worry about it. You’re good.’ Devin has just ever since he’s come, he’s been there with me. We hold each other up to very high standards in practice.”
It all led to a culmination of 22 tackles, five pass breakups, one fumble recovery, and one interception in the final game against Virginia. Strong’s performance earned him a spot on 247’s True Freshman All-American Team. When the season wrapped up, Strong was graded Virginia Tech’s top cornerback by PFF.
“His length is good, his speed is good, and his ball skills, his radius and being able to play the ball is good,” defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton said. “He’s a willing tackler. He’s not fearful.
“You can see that physically he’s got some tools, but he needs to develop some. That was kind of the thought as he was coming in. When he can develop physically, he’s going to be a specimen, so to speak.”
Strong’s propensity to attack the weight room this offseason could make all the difference. In fact, it’s built in his DNA. Strong’s father is “yoked” according to Hamilton and a professional bodybuilder. However, he never pushed Strong in that direction from an early age.
“My dad always told me, he was like, ‘You can put size on in the long run, but you can’t teach speed.’ His main goal was to make sure I stayed very fast and I was faster than the majority of the people,” Strong said.
The sky’s the limit for Strong heading into his second season at Virginia Tech. He has all the tools there to develop into the next great Virginia Tech cornerback and continue the legacy of DBU.
“I think the important thing is that he accomplished a lot this year, but there’s a lot left,” Hamilton said. “The last thing I told him in the locker room was, ‘Hey, you had a great year. It was awesome to see, but you’ve always got to stay humble and stay hungry. That’s the biggest thing is be humble and be hungry. If you do that, then you’ll continue to develop.’”