Entering the 2020 season, one of the main areas of concern depth-wise was the defensive backs.
The offseason outlook was strong through June of 2020, until cornerback Caleb Farley opted out of the season (and eventually turned pro). Jermaine Waller, the Hokies’ No. 2 corner, battled injury problems all season and only appeared in two games. And on top of that, safety Devon Hunter was suspended in September after being arrested on a felony strangulation charge and assault on a family member, a misdemeanor.
In Justin Hamilton’s first season as defensive coordinator and Ryan Smith’s first season as cornerbacks coach, the losses threw them for a loop.
As a result, the Hokies gave up 32.1 points per game on defense, the program’s worst mark since 1973, and an average of 447 yards per game.
However, in the midst of a pandemic and the team struggling defensively at times, some young stars emerged. True freshmen Keonta Jenkins (safety) and Dorian Strong (cornerback) were thrown into the mix and performed well for having so little Power 5 experience.
There’s still plenty of questions surrounding Virginia Tech’s defensive backs, especially around the safeties and Hunter. What will the Hokies’ secondary look like in 2021?
Cornerback Depth Chart
Ahead of last season, Virginia Tech’s cornerback room looked promising with Farley and Waller both returning. After combining for 21 starts in 2019, Farley opted out and Waller started just two games in 2020. Here’s a breakdown of Tech’s starts, snaps and PFF defensive grades at cornerback last year:
Chamarri Conner started all 11 games at nickelback and had a consistent season, which we’ll get to soon.
Inexperience and youth combined with COVID-19 threw the Hokies for a loop last season at corner. Tech didn’t really have any consistency at that position, which means a lot of young guys got reps.
While Brion Murray started the most games at corner, including seven in a row from Boston College through Clemson, he was Tech’s worst-graded player at that position. In fact, true freshman Dorian Strong was Tech’s best corner, per PFF.
Here’s what Tech’s rotation of cornerbacks could look like this season:
CB1: Jermaine Waller (6-1, 180, Jr., Washington, D.C.)
CB2: Dorian Strong (6-0, 174, Fr., Upper Marlboro, Md.)
CB3: Armani Chatman (5-11, 205, r-So., Virginia Beach, Va.)
CB4: Brion Murray (5-10, 185, Jr., Milford, Del.)
CB5: Nadir Thompson (5-10, 180, r-So., Rocky Mount, N.C.)
NB1: Chamarri Conner (6-0, 205, Jr., Jacksonville, Fla.)
NB2: Nasir Peoples (6-0, 202, r-So., Abington, Pa.)
The majority of questions at corner throughout fall camp have surrounded the No. 2 cornerback position, and rightfully so. Waller is the No. 1 guy. In 2019, he was the second-highest graded player on Virginia Tech’s defense, behind only First Round NFL Draft pick Caleb Farley. Waller has 974 career snaps and 12 career starts. Having him back for the Hokies is a huge plus after he missed the majority of 2020 with a foot injury.
Dorian Strong at No. 2?
Dorian Strong quickly impressed as a true freshman last season. He didn’t record the most starts in the cornerback room, likely because of his inexperience, but finished the season with the most snaps and the highest PFF grade. Defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton praised him at Virginia Tech’s media day in early August.
“Last year, the best part of his game was his length, his speed and his ball skills, having the ability to track the ball to play through receivers’ hands or through the contact or finish plays,” Hamilton said. “My message to him has been, ‘a great true freshman season is drastically different than a great career.’ He’s developed his body, he’s gotten stronger, he’s been good in the weight room and I think that he has a better understanding of what’s going on.
“Last year, he was the guy that at first was like, ‘oh, you’re available, you don’t have COVID, you’re not quarantine, like go play and go play 70 snaps. He’s a smart kid and he’s a guy that you can coach and he understands and he gives you feedback, which is important for players to do. I think for him, he’s going to have to understand that he’s either going to be attacked based off of if he’s aggressive in certain areas or if he’s softer in certain areas.”
Cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith said he’s had a really good camp and improved a lot since the 2020 season. If Strong has improved as much as the coaches say he has without dropping off production-wise from last year, don’t be surprised if he’s Tech’s No. 2 corner.
Others in the Mix
The other players battling for the No. 2 cornerback role are Chatman, Murray and Thompson.
Chatman is one of the elder statesmen of the room, like Waller, having been in Blacksburg since 2018. He has 756 snaps to his name and played the second-most snaps and had the second-highest PFF grade in 2020, only behind Strong. Smith said Chatman has had “a phenomenal camp, probably the best since I’ve been here.”
Murray started the most games for the Hokies last season but had the worst defensive PFF grades of the group. However, he’s got experience under his belt. 559 snaps, to be exact.
Nadir Thompson is the other name. Though he’ll likely be Tech’s fifth option at corner, he’ll still see some time. He has 145 career snaps and even though he only played 138 last season, he was Tech’s highest graded corner in terms of tackling.
The good news is the Hokies have a lot of options and a lot of experience. Ryan Smith knows that.
“I’m in a fortunate situation because I’m in a room with guys that have played a bunch of snaps,” Smith said. “Not only Jermaine Waller, who sets the tone and is like a coach on the field, but you’ve got guys like Armani Chatman, who started games in 2019 and 2020, and Brion Murray, who’s done the same thing. Nadir Thompson has started a game. Dorian Strong has started some games.
“I’ve been fortunate to guide the room, it’s their job to lead it, but to just kind of guide them, set parameters and let the room take care of the room.”
Harvey and Howard each arrived in the summer while Johnson was in Blacksburg for the spring.
“He [Johnson] was able to adapt quickly and understands the game,” Smith said. “The transition from high school to college for some guys is a massive step but I thought he handled it well and he is going to be a guy that has a chance to contribute for us in multiple different ways, whether it’s special teams or defense.”
A California kid, Smith didn’t get to see Harvey until he arrived at Virginia Tech in June. He’s impressed since, though.
“DJ got in in June and I’ve been really impressed with his quickness and his knowledge of the game,” Smith said. “I knew he was a good all around player, but I’ve seen how smart [he is] and how the game comes easy to him.”
Howard is a former running back who rushed for 1,422 yards and 22 touchdowns as a junior in 2019. Smith’s liked how he’s adjusted so far.
“Elijah, he has a ton of upside. He’s a guy that’s explosive, he can run. He didn’t have much experience at corner because he played a lot of offense in high school so he’s still really learning the position, but I’m excited to see his development.”
At rover, the Hokies have to replace Divine Deablo, who is now with the Las Vegas Raiders. The obvious choice is Devon Hunter, the former five-star recruit and No. 1 player in Virginia.
The redshirt junior from Chesapeake, Va. was arrested ahead of the 2020 season, which had the potential to be his breakout year. Hunter has played 254 snaps since 2018 and has big shoes to fill at rover. Can he be the player Virginia Tech needs him to be? Chris Coleman touched more on Hunter’s role this season in his defensive back analysis.
Outside of Hunter, the Hokies have Keonta Jenkins, Tae Daley and Jalen Stroman.
A 6-3, 207-pound freshman from Jacksonville, Jenkins was thrust into the spotlight last season due to lack of bodies. He played well, and it’s a safe bet that he’ll start at free safety for the Hokies this season, opposite of Hunter.
Justin Hamilton said Daley is a player that can play both free safety and rover. A 6-1, 203-pound senior that transferred from Vanderbilt in the offseason, Daley has plenty experience, though he opted out of 2020.
Jalen Stroman (6-1, 187, Fr., Nokesville, Va.), the younger brother of Greg, is in the rotation at free safety, though his playing time will depend on how fast he develops (or how soon Tech needs him). Due to a veteran in Daley who can play both spots being ahead of him, he might not see much time this year, but he’s in the Hokies’ future plans.