Tyree Spinner, the head football coach at The Avalon School, was locked in, paying little more attention to this play than the average snap in a 7-on-7 summer football game. He wanted to see how his new cornerback would respond to the quandary that the position faces in his Cover 2 defense.
Jermaine Waller transferred from Archbishop Carroll, where he exclusively played quarterback, to Spinner and The Avalon School, in order to become a cornerback and increase his chances of playing at the next level.
The cornerback in the Cover 2 defense has to be able to play in between the high and low areas, oftentimes trying to lure the quarterback into making a mistake. In one of his first reps at the new position, Waller executed the play to perfection.
“At that point, especially only having him for a short amount of time, I remember saying, ‘OK, I wonder what he’s going to do.’ You have to be able to bait the quarterback to throw high or low,” Spinner said. “He baited the quarterback into throwing high by creeping up on the low read, and as soon as the quarterback opened up to throw the high corner route, he literally transitioned, opened his hips, and accelerated to run underneath the corner route to get a pick, which is very hard to do.
“You see some guys on Sundays who don’t have the ability to do that. At that moment, that play was a sign that, ‘OK, this kid is special.’”
It was a harbinger for the same type of player Waller would be years later with Virginia Tech. All of those years as the field general allowed him to sync up his mind with what the quarterback is thinking in certain moments.
“It helps in a lot of ways, just knowing defenses and knowing the weak spots and soft spots of defenses,” Waller said. “I would say just the mental part of the game. It’s a big difference physically from quarterback to defensive back, but the mental part of the game is a big help.”
Cornerback was always the position Waller wanted to play. It’s the position that his 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame was made for. It’s why the transition from under center to the defensive backfield was a relatively smooth one.
“From the first day I saw him back pedal and brake and his natural instinct and ability to play the ball in the air, it was a no brainer,” Spinner said. “The ability to play going backwards is not easy. Every other position on the field has to go forward. You learn at an early age only how to accelerate and decelerate going forward. Teaching him how to back pedal smoothly and getting in his transitions and staying low in his back pedal was something that we needed to work on, but those were minor.
“He was already athletically sound. His knowledge of the game playing quarterback, the transition to the game playing cornerback and understanding coverages and zones and how to play the ball in the air was completely natural. It was effortless.”
Now, Waller is in his fourth season with the Hokies and is one of the most critical players in Justin Hamilton’s defense. As a freshman in 2018, Waller played sparingly in 12 games. He burst onto the scene as a sophomore where he earned a 2019 All-ACC Honorable Mention selection with three interceptions, 13 passes defensed, and 46 tackles.
Waller’s trajectory was on the rise, but a broken foot caused him to miss the final two games of the 2019 season — two losses to Virginia and Kentucky. The progress Waller had built from the previous year was halted with the injury and the complications of trying to rehab it in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With a severely shortened roster, Waller rushed back into action in the third game of the season and only set himself back further with an arm injury in the 56-45 loss at North Carolina. His sacrifice for the team prompted both Justin Fuente and Hamilton to refer to him as a warrior.
“To hear that from my coaches is big to me,” Waller said. “That’s just another thing that helped me to keep going and stay strong and stay positive all the time.”
“He comes from a great story of perseverance,” Spinner said. “To be where he is today allows him to have that warrior mentality. He’s been through a lot of trials and tribulations. Football is his safe haven, his escape from any of the negativity or anything else that might have happened previously in his life. When he gets on the field, he cherishes that moment of freedom where he doesn’t have anything holding him back mentally, physically or emotionally. It’s a warrior mindset. He’s a dynamic kid. His struggles and his trials in life have created this callous of bravery and courage that you can see in his eyes when he’s on the field.”
The Washington, D.C. native appeared in just one more game the rest of the 2020 season. That time away from the field, away from his safe haven, allowed him to make an impact in other methods.
Waller used his own experiences of rehabbing and dealing with the mental effects of missing action to uplift those in similar situations around him.
“It definitely helps encouraging guys because I’m one of the older guys on the team now,” Waller said. “People look up to me and stuff I say is valid. When a guy might be down or injured or nicked up, giving them some advice, what to do extra at home, things like that that helped me get to where I’m at. Just the experience and getting the feel for not being around the team all the time because you can’t practice or things like that is what helped me. It’s what I share with other guys.”
Nasir Peoples was one of those players who has benefitted from Waller’s encouragement. Peoples missed the entire 2020 season after tearing his ACL in fall camp. It allowed time for many conversations between the pair.
Flash forward to Friday’s win over North Carolina and Peoples was a surprise starter at safety, playing 63 of 65 snaps and totaling six tackles.
“We worked out a lot together during the recovery process,” Peoples said. “It was a great time, we got to talk and do extra work together, so it was nice.”
As much as Waller spent time assisting those around him last year, there was still a burning desire in him to return to the field and reclaim his form from the 2019 season. In fact, cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith put that desire succinctly in words over the off-season.
“There’s nothing that I have to do personally to motivate Jermaine Waller,” Smith said. “He is self-motivated. He might be the definition of self-motivated. He’s going to show up every single day and approach the game like a professional. He’s going to do his job, get the job done, and go over and beyond what he needs to do. … I think you’re going to see a guy who is hungry and ready to attack the 2021 season.”
That message was prophetic for the performance Waller put on display Friday in the 17-10 win over the Tar Heels. Waller collected seven tackles, allowed just three receptions for 37 yards, and recorded an interception in the third quarter after he ripped the ball out of the arms of North Carolina wide receiver Justin Olson along the sideline.
Jermaine Waller intercepts Sam Howell 🥶
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 4, 2021
According to PFF stats, Waller (74.4) graded out as the second-best defensive player for Virginia Tech, only behind Norell Pollard (78.1). He was tops in coverage with a rating of 75.9, helping the Hokies emulate their patented Lunch Pail Defense of old on Friday night.
“He plays extremely loud without opening his mouth,” Spinner said. “He plays really loudly with his physical play. That was always very impressive to me. His demeanor no matter what the situation was, whether we were down 10 or down 20 or up 10 or up 20, he was the same even-keeled guy. To me, that’s what is carrying him on today. He’s got a story of perseverance and he’s got a lot to be proud of and he’s got a lot to motivate him to continue to be successful.”
That story of perseverance is still being written. Week one is in the books, and Waller is ready to add another chapter week after week, potentially into the NFL Draft beyond the season.
“If he’s not the first cornerback taken off the board, then I need to apply for an NFL scouting position,” Spinner said. “It confirms that some of these cliches that coaches have are very true. Life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. That type of cliche is true, but only if you take control of the narrative. That’s what Jermaine has done. He’s taken control of his story, and now he’s writing his own story. It’s amazing to see.”
Through the highs and the lows, Waller keeps a quiet confidence. The embattled cornerback has a support system with his family and close friends that has never swayed. And now, Waller is seeing the results come alive on and off the field.
“I’m blessed,” Waller said. “I’ve been through a lot of things. That’s all I can say.”