Virginia Tech Depth Chart Takeaways, Matchup with UNC Secondary and Stopping the Run

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Virginia Tech and head coach Justin Fuente released the Hokies’ depth chart ahead of Friday’s clash with No. 10 North Carolina, and there were very few surprises.

Offense:

Offensively, there were four things that stood out:

1. Freshman Kaden Moore will start at right guard, with Jack Hollifield to back him up (though if it came to it, Silas Dzansi or Johnny Jordan would likely play there before Hollifield).

Moore starting is the biggest takeaway from the offense’s depth chart. A 6-3, 311-pounder from Bethlehem, Pa., seemingly everyone around the program has raved about Moore throughout fall camp, from Fuente and offensive line coach Vance Vice to left guard Lecitus Smith and defensive tackle Jordan Williams.

Freshman Kaden Moore (68) will start at right guard vs. North Carolina. (Jon Fleming)

Fuente said no one on the offensive line had a better combination of fall and spring practice than Moore. On Aug. 18, Vice said, “Moore has had a great camp so far, making a big push, he wants to be one of those five.” 

“He’s put in the work and prepared the right way,” Smith said, “so we’re not worried at all like, ‘aw man, we’ve got to come up with plays to make up for the lack of what we have at right guard.'”

Moore was the first player that came to Jordan Williams’ mind when asked what offensive player caught his eye in fall camp.

Though he’s young and has never taken a collegiate snap, he’s clearly got the work ethic and talent to be starting against the Tar Heels on Friday.

2. Freshmen Jaylen Jones, Da’Wain Lofton and Jaden Payoute (r-Fr.) are the second string wide receivers.

Fuente called the duo of Jones and Lofton “studs” on the Tech Sideline Podcast back on July 20. On Monday, Fuente had more compliments for the two and Payoute, mentioning the fact that they’ve worked their way into the two-deep says a lot about them.

“Jaden’s had tremendous adversity in his short time here, the other two pups have just been fantastic,” Fuente said. “I hope they can contribute on special teams, to start with, and then help us spell those other guys and not see a drop-off in execution. I’m really excited because they’ve got a couple of guys in front of them to learn from.”

3. Knox Kadum is Virginia Tech’s backup quarterback.

As detailed in our quarterback preview, out of the potential backups under center, Kadum has the most knowledge of the offensive system. Back on Aug. 12, Fuente said Kadum “has made good progress.” It’s not surprising to see him as QB2 behind Braxton Burmeister and ahead of Connor Blumrick and Tahj Bullock.

4. Jalen Holston, Raheem Blackshear and Keshawn King are all listed as the starting running back.

Throughout fall camp, there’s been little clarity into Tech’s running back competition. The depth chart didn’t provide any on Monday, either, listing all three backs as the starter. It’s not shocking considering Fuente, offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen and running backs coach Adam Lechtenberg have praised all three backs. Expect to see all of them against the Tar Heels.

Defense

Defensively, there were three main takeaways:

1. Mario Kendricks has earned his starting role at defensive tackle, while Jordan Williams and Norell Pollard fight for the other spot.

A sophomore from Kissimmee, FL, Kendricks has played in all 24 games for the Hokies since 2019, totaling 26 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Though Williams saw time at Clemson and Pollard owns the most starts on the defensive line, Kendricks has been the steady option up front. All three guys will rotate and see time, but the fact that Kendricks has solidified himself there is intriguing.

2. Dorian Strong and Armani Chatman are both CB2.

Dorian Strong will share CB2 responsibilities with Armani Chatman. (Ivan Morozov)

As expected, Strong and Chatman are the two go-to cornerbacks opposite Jermaine Waller. Defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton had high praise for Strong in the offseason, while cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith said Chatman had “a phenomenal camp, probably the best since I’ve been here.”

Those two will see plenty of time at corner alongside Waller, with Nadir Thompson and Brion Murray backing them up.

3. Nasir Peoples is Devon Hunter‘s backup at boundary safety.

The buzz surrounding Tech’s secondary all offseason was, “is Devon Hunter ready?” As Chris Coleman touched on last week, Hunter hasn’t received the praise like other players have during fall camp. He’s got a huge challenge on his hands, filling the shoes of Divine Deablo.

Peoples, a 6-0, 202-pound redshirt sophomore from Abington, Pa., missed 2020 due to a non-contact knee injury. He played a lot on special teams in 2019 while practicing at boundary safety. It’ll be interesting to see what his contributions are like based on Hunter’s productivity.

Special Teams

There aren’t any surprises on the two-deep from the special teams unit.

John Parker Romo is Tech’s field goal kicker and kickoff specialist, while Peter Moore is the punter and holder. Oscar Shadley is in his fourth year as Tech’s long snapper, so there’s consistency there.

Special teams coach James Shibest said last week that Tayvion Robinson is “back to his old self” at punt returner. He had a rough 2020 season after a brilliant 2019 campaign, but it’s no shock to see him as PR1. Tre Turner is his backup, if necessary.

Keshawn King is the guy at kick returner, as Shibest previously mentioned. Shibest praised his explosiveness, which could be a weapon for the Hokies this season. Raheem Blackshear is the other option at that spot.

Matchup with North Carolina’s Secondary

“I thought they made huge strides defensively as the season went along last year,” Fuente said about North Carolina’s defense. “I think the entire back end kind of found their identity. They’re going to grab you at the line of scrimmage, you better be ready for it.

“They handled us on the perimeter [last year]. We’ll have to be ready for that challenge from all of them.”

In last season’s matchup, the Tar Heels allowed 235 passing yards. Fuente said he thought Virginia Tech was better up front but that UNC dominated in the secondary. On Monday, he said the Hokies’ receivers need to get off the line of scrimmage better against Carolina’s physical corners this year.

“They don’t call pass interference in this league, which is fine, it’s the same for everybody,” Fuente said. “I personally think it should be officiated that way, for the record. I love the way we handle both holding and pass interference.”

The point: North Carolina’s DBs are going to get physical in Lane Stadium. It’s up to Virginia Tech’s receivers to match that physicality and get open.

Stopping the Run

In Carolina’s 56-45 win in Chapel Hill in 2020, the Tar Heels ran for 413 yards and averaged 9.3 yards per carry. Michael Carter tallied 214 while Javonte Williams had 170, which opened up the offense for quarterback Sam Howell, the ACC’s Preseason Player of the Year. Howell completed 18 of his 23 pass attempts for 257 yards and three touchdowns.

“There’s a lot to unwrap with him [Sam Howell] and their offense,” Fuente said. “First of all, they can run the football. They can push the ball down the field, but it starts with the run game and then it’s the RPOs off the run game. He [Howell] is really good at seeing the field. … He’s just a headsy, savvy football player.”

Tech linebacker Dax Hollifield, a Shelby, NC native, said the first thing Tech has to do this year against UNC is stop the run. He said Carolina running over them at will last year was very demoralizing.

“They lost both of those dynamic backs they had last year, but I expect them to have some young guys step up,” Hollifield said. “The first thing is stopping the run. Once you do that, you can really try to defend the RPO game. … If you stop the run, they’re going to be one dimensional and the tide will change to one side of the ball.”

One number stands out from looking through UNC’s stats from last season: the Tar Heels were 0-3 when held to fewer than 100 rushing yards.  When rushing for 101 yards or more, Carolina was 8-1. Hollifield is on the right track. If Tech can stop the run on Friday, it will be one step closer to a victory.

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4 Responses You are logged in as Test

    1. Agree, I hope Brock keeps himself out of the personal foul penalties this year or Jordan will be taking over.

  1. Our d-backs need to return the favor on grabbing jerseys and arm bars. As Fuente said you coach that in this league.

    Hope our relatively young secondary is mentally sound enough and physically strong enough to give them the business at the LOS.

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