Spring practice has wrapped up for Virginia Tech without a hitch, and no group benefitted more from the 15 practices than the Hokies’ defense.
“This spring has been extremely useful, especially from a defensive standpoint,” linebacker Dean Ferguson said. “We’ve been able to see what kind of looks we want to get into and what works or doesn’t work as well. Everybody just feels a lot more comfortable after the spring and rolling into fall camp.”
Justin Hamilton took over as defensive coordinator after the 2019 season and expected to have plenty of time to implement his new system. However, after spring practice was cancelled and fall camp was marred by COVID-19 issues within the program, Hamilton was thrown into the fire with no real time to prepare.
This season, a full spring and COVID concerns easing should allow the defense to have more continuity and feel much more comfortable when fall rolls around.
The Young Secondary Continues to Progress
Last spring, there was a lot of optimism about what the Virginia Tech secondary could accomplish in 2020. Over the next few months, attrition struck the group and they never were able to see if they lived up to the potential.
Star cornerbacks Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller were projected as possibly the best duo in the entire country. After Farley opted out and Waller missed all but two games of the season with injuries, the position had to be filled by a lot of young players with little to no game experience.
“It was very important for my career because I hadn’t played a ton of football up to that point,” cornerback Brion Murray said. “Getting more reps at that speed last year has really translated to the spring. For the most part, I just think that playing has been very important.”
Murray received starting reps along with Armani Chatman and true freshman Dorian Strong. Their youth was a liability last season, but with those added game reps, the cornerback room is looking deep once again.
“It’s very hard to find a corner room where you have four or five that can easily start and make an impact on that game,” Murray said. “We have that here with Jermaine Waller, Dorian Strong, Nadir Thompson, Armani Chatman, and myself. Every corner has his own standard, and you have to maintain that standard to keep your spot, so we definitely have competition within the group.”
Not only did the younger players receive more reps last year, but Waller is also back in the fold and finally healthy. Waller was rated the second-best corner in the ACC by PFF in 2019, only behind his teammate Farley, who is expected to be selected in the first round of next week’s NFL Draft.
“It really helps us out and takes us to another level having him back. In my opinion, he was one of the top corners in the country in 2019,” Murray said. “Having him in the room, with the experience he has, helps us as a whole and brings us up to that standard.”
While the depth at cornerback should be much stronger than last season, the Hokies do lose a major piece at safety in Divine Deablo. Freshman Keonta Jenkins could step into his place and play a much larger role for the Hokies in his second season with the program.
“My first snap against NC State felt like that, it was like, welcome to college football. The pace and everything changed so much from high school to college,” Jenkins said. “I don’t even think the play came to me, but just getting the calls in and the snap and how everything was moving was very different.”
After Jenkins saw plenty of snaps in his first two games, he missed time himself due to COVID-19. At that point, Devin Taylor stepped in and took most of the reps at safety away from the true freshman.
“It was a change, but it wasn’t hard,” Jenkins said. “I always felt like I was ready to execute whatever they needed me to do and could do whatever they asked me to do.”
Jenkins had just stepped on campus for the first time in the fall and was immediately thrust into a starting position. After a full season with the program and now the entirety of spring practice to continue to develop in the system, he should be much more comfortable entering his second season.
“I think my performance level will be different, and I’ll be able to execute at a different level. I’m looking forward to making more plays next year than I did in my limited work last year,” Jenkins said. “Spring practice has definitely been huge for me and prepared me for this upcoming season.”
TyJuan Garbutt Returning to Form After Time Away
In his first two seasons with the program, TyJuan Garbutt continued to grow as a rotational pass-rusher for the Hokies. However, he had to step away from the program before the 2020 season due to personal issues and rarely saw the field even after he returned.
“I had some personal issues at home, and they’ve done nothing but be very supportive of it. Coach Fu and I have talked multiple times,” Garbutt said. “He’s always told me that I could take as much time as I needed and that’s really just what happened. I wasn’t in the right state mentally and emotionally stable [enough] to commit to one thing. They’ve done nothing but have my back since I returned.”
Garbutt returned to the team in late October, but wasn’t quite ready to take on the role that he played before his absence. Due to COVID-19 wiping out most of the offseason, Garbutt hadn’t truly been around the team since before the pandemic began.
“I was definitely rusty when I had my late return last fall. I feel like this spring has helped me a lot to get back into my old routine. I’m also learning this new scheme and having to gel with not only me, but also you have to be on the same page with your tackle,” Garbutt said. “That’s the only way you’re going to be successful as a defensive line. It’s been fun, it feels like I’m falling in love with the sport all over again.”
Totaling ten tackles for loss in his first two seasons, Garbutt showed plenty of flashes when he’s been on the field. While he wasn’t in shape to play a role for the Hokies last fall, he’s beginning to work his way back to where he was previously.
“My spring has been alright. A lot of people could say it was good, but obviously there is still a lot to work on. The way we’re learning things, and the way this thing is going, I think this spring has pushed me to the point where I can break out as long as my summer and fall are both good,” Garbutt said. “I’m ready to do whatever I can to help the team, whether that’s 20 snaps or 40 to 50, if it will help the Hokies win.”
When Garbutt was fully healthy, he made an impact on the edge for the Hokies. Along with the return of Amare Barno and Emmanuel Belmar, there is plenty of experience rushing the passer for Virginia Tech this fall.