One of the biggest questions surrounding Virginia Tech ahead of the season opener against North Carolina was, “Can the Hokies play well enough defensively against Sam Howell and UNC to have a chance to win?”
It was a fair question after a tough first season for defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton in 2020. Against North Carolina last season, Tech got torched all over, but particularly on the back-end. Howell completed 18 of 23 passes for 257 yards and three scores, all while the Tar Heels ran for 400 yards.
The Hokies’ defensive line improved over the offseason. Amare Barno and TyJuan Garbutt form a dynamic edge rushing pair, while there’s depth at tackle. Tech’s set at linebacker with Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale, too.
As far as the secondary goes, however, the Hokies had questions to answer. Could Devon Hunter finally make an impact? Would Chamarri Conner be a liability in coverage? How would Tech rotate multiple cornerbacks with experience? Sure, Sam Howell doesn’t have the receivers he had last year, but would the Hokies really be able to stop him?
Justin Hamilton and cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith checked all of those boxes and answered all of those questions in the 17-10 win over North Carolina.
Nasir Peoples Is The Real Deal
A 6-0, 202-pound redshirt sophomore from Abington, Pa., Nasir Peoples missed 2020 with a torn ACL. It was a non-contact injury in fall camp last season where he tried to cut and his knee gave out.
One year later, Peoples is Virginia Tech’s starting boundary safety. He played 63 of 65 snaps at that position against UNC, finishing with six tackles.
“Peoples has just become a little bit of a Swiss Army Knife for us,” Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente said during Monday’s Tech Talk Live. “He can line up at all three of the safety positions, he’s got a great knowledge and understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish and provides us with a little bit of artificial depth if we needed to move him around a little bit, but he’s really found a home there in the boundary and was really productive in a tough game to play for a safety.”
Peoples has practiced at all of the safety positions in the past, and he was working at the whip/nickel spot before he got hurt. He worked primarily on special teams in 2019 before missing 2020 with his injury.
As Chris Coleman pointed out many times, including in his UNC game preview, Peoples was listed as Hunter’s backup at boundary safety. Here’s what Chris wrote:
“We hit on this in an article last week, but the Tech coaching staff still isn’t sold on Hunter (6-0, 220, r-Jr.) being a starting caliber player at this level, and they are searching for an alternative. It’s possible that we could see Peoples or Vanderbilt transfer Tae Daley (6-1, 203, Sr.) at rover in this game as well, especially if Hunter were to struggle early.”
Hunter didn’t even get the opportunity vs. UNC. Peoples, who missed the spring and said he first felt 100% again during summer workouts, started the game. He essentially solidified his role as Tech’s starting boundary safety.
Peoples had Tech’s best tackling grade (84.9), the third-best overall defensive grade (71.3), the third-best rushing defense grade (71.9) and the fourth-highest coverage grade (69.2).
“It was hard to sit out [last year], but I talked to a lot of guys who had the same injury, like Caleb Farley, and he just gave me great advice, ‘keep your head down and keep working,” Peoples said on Monday. “It threw me off at first [that I was starting]. I was a little surprised, but I was excited. I felt like I was prepared.”
So much for having questions about who will step up at that position. It’s Peoples’ job to lose, now.
Tech Has Serious Depth at Cornerback
The experience showed against the Tar Heels. Waller, Tech’s CB1, played 51 snaps – 30 at corner, 20 in the slot and one at FS. Chris detailed Waller’s numbers in this week’s edition of Inside The Numbers.
Waller was Tech’s most experienced cornerback and the Hokies knew he was good, though. What about the others?
Dorian Strong played 54 snaps at corner while Armani Chatman played 46. Thompson and Murray didn’t see the field on defense. Strong finished with one tackle and one pass breakup, while Chatman had one tackle for a five-yard loss and two pass breakups.
Combined with Waller, the three were targeted 13 times and allowed six receptions for a total of 47 yards. That’s an average of 3.6 yards allowed per target. Pretty darn good.
“Armani is a guy that is in that rotation that is also playing at a high level,” Fuente said. “Everybody wanted to talk about Jermaine [Waller] and Dorian [Strong] coming into the year, and those guys played well, but I’m really proud of Chatman and his progress that he’s made.
“You also look at the guy that’s down there covering those punts, forcing the punt returner to fair catch and that’s Armani. He had a really productive game, not just defensively, but on special teams as well, and we’re gonna need that to continue throughout the season. It’s nice to be able to rotate those guys through a little bit.”
Smith has his hands full at corner. Waller and Strong were fantastic starters, Chatman was lock-down when he rotated in, and Murray and Thompson (nine combined starts, 592 combined snaps in 2020) didn’t even play a snap at corner.
Conner, Daley and Jenkins Were Solid in Week One
Chamarri Conner, Tae Daley and Keonta Jenkins all did their job against North Carolina in the season opener. They’re also the three defensive backs that haven’t been mentioned, but that’s simply because Peoples and the cornerbacks jumped off the page.
Conner, the ACC Defensive Back of the Week, played all 65 snaps vs. the Tar Heels. His PFF defensive grade seems to be lower than how he actually played, but his tackling grade – 75.5 – was solid. He led Tech with eight tackles and sealed the game with his interception in the fourth quarter.
Daley and Jenkins each had quiet, yet good, games. Jenkins was on the field for 34 snaps, with Daley seeing action for 31 plays.
Daley was targeted once and didn’t allow a catch, and he finished with the third-highest tackling grade. Jenkins allowed two catches for 47 yards on two targets. One of them happened to be Howell’s 37-yard tunnel screen touchdown pass to Josh Downs.
The two combined for five tackles on the back end. Nothing spectacular, just a really solid job at free safety. If Tech can build a large enough lead against MTSU, the two might even be able to rest and Jalen Stroman could get some reps there.
Combined with a fantastic pass rush up front, Tech only allowed Howell to complete 53% of his passes and picked him off three times. UNC also only converted two of its ten third downs.
Credit to everyone in that secondary, especially Peoples and the cornerback depth. They executed Justin Hamilton’s gameplan to perfection against the Tar Heels, and it paid off.