Virginia Tech has always had a history of good defensive backs. DBU (defensive back university), as many called it, became a staple of Bud Foster’s Lunch Pail Defense under Frank Beamer. Now, thanks to cornerbacks coach Derek Jones, that room is adopting the “cheetah mentality.”
Jones has 24 years of coaching experience at the Division I level, but he’s also a motivational speaker in a sense. In 2017, he wrote a book called Always Play To Win, and he tweets inspirational quotes every day to his 88,000 followers. But as a football coach, he’s trying to instill a mindset and mentality in his players.
Jones, who joined the Hokies’ staff from Texas Tech in December, came up with the phrase when he started playing football. That was only amplified at Duke when David Cutcliffe made each assistant come up with a phrase for their position group. As you guessed, Jones chose the word “cheetah.”
The characteristics of defensive backs and cheetahs are similar, as he told the media back in March. Both are predator and prey, and both hunt alone most of the time. The one exception is when they hunt with their brothers.
“They’re very strategic in the way they hunt, even though they haven’t practiced it,” Jones said in March. “Going against a bigger animal, each one has a job. So when you think about the job of a secondary, everybody has their job. … So it was a way to unify a group. It’s a way to give a group of mentality.”
“Cheetahs are going to hunt for their own meals,” cornerback Dorian Strong explained after practice on Aug. 12. “So when you’re in that position, ball in the air, if you’re a step behind, catch up. Time to make a play.”
Jones inherited a talented group of cornerbacks at Virginia Tech, one where three of the seven guys in his room have starting experience. A fourth – DJ Harvey – played in four games last year, mostly on special teams, before redshirting. Here’s a breakdown of the seven scholarship corners:
Armani Chatman (5-11, 208, r-Sr.*)
Brion Murray (5-10, 190, r-Sr.*)
Dorian Strong (6-0, 178, Jr.*)
DJ Harvey (5-11, 190, r-Fr.)
Elijah Howard (5-11, 176, r-Fr.)
Nyke Johnson (5-11, 185, r-Fr.)
Cam Johnson (6-0, 160, Fr.)
*Chatman, Murray and Strong each have an extra year of eligibility thanks to COVID.
Though he’s not the oldest or the most experienced (by roughly 100 snaps) of the group, Strong is the No. 1 corner for the Hokies. He’s taken on more of a leadership role since the spring, and he admitted that he was a little complacent at times as a sophomore. That’s changed.
Strong said he’s become more vocal and learned to not take stuff to heart from the coaches. He’s matured and become more coachable, and the game is starting to slow down for him.
“I think the biggest thing with him is just the attention to detail of playing the position,” Jones said about Strong. “There’s a lot of things that you can take for granted when you’re a talented guy, but football is a game of inches. When you look at the cornerback position in particular, a lot of times you’re almost there, a lot of times you make a pass breakup as opposed to an interception, and when you go back and look at the film, it’s as simple as not being in the proper stance, not having your eyes in the right place.
“Those are things that, as a coach, I’ve been trying to harp him on and upping his game. And probably the other thing is just the leadership aspect of it. Trying to explain to him and make him understand that those guys in that room follow him.”
Behind him is Chatman, who has the most career snaps (1,140) in the room. He’s played in 38 games over four years in Blacksburg and has 67 career tackles, 15 pass breakups and one interception.
When Jones spoke with the media on Aug. 12, he said Chatman is probably the most improved player throughout fall camp based on the things the staff wanted the cornerbacks to work on in the offseason.
“Armani is probably one of the smartest football players I’ve ever coached,” Jones said. “Armani is a guy that has a wealth of knowledge of the whole package, everything that we’re doing. He has a very physical presence. I think what we’re doing is going to work into his favor.”
The third corner in the mix is Murray, who has 31 appearances (nine starts), 55 tackles and three interceptions to his name. Strong described him as a “little ball of energy” who always keeps everyone on their toes, and Murray is battling Chatman for the No. 2 cornerback role.
“He’s gonna crack jokes with the coaches and stuff,” Strong said of Murray. “But when it’s that time to be serious and lock in, … he’s the guy to look at.”
Between the three of them, there’s a wealth of experience – 93 appearances, 38 starts, 2,743 snaps and 167 tackles, to be exact. Jones ideally wants to have four corners he feels comfortable with heading into the season, which brings Harvey into the conversation. He’s one of Tech’s options at nickelback, and he’s coming along well in that fourth cornerback spot. Strong said “he’s going to be a true, complete football player.”
Young players like Elijah Howard, Nyke Johnson and Cam Johnson have also received praise from the staff, too. The latter two were mentioned by Jones and Strong as guys who stood out in one of the scrimmages the Hokies had in fall camp, and Pry said the Cam Johnson is “making tremendous strides,” though he isn’t sure if the freshman will be able to help out the team in 2022.
Veterans At Safety
Like Jones, safeties coach Pierson Prioleau has a handful of depth at his disposal in 2022. It starts with team captain Chamarri Conner and Nasir Peoples, two players who started all 13 games for Virginia Tech last season. They also finished second (Peoples with 88) and third (Conner, 86) in tackles behind Dax Hollifield’s 92.
Here’s a list of the seven scholarship safeties:
Chamarri Conner (6-0, 206, r-Sr.*)
Nasir Peoples (6-0, 205, r-Sr.*)
Ny’Quee Hawkins (6-0, 198, r-Jr.*)
Jalen Stroman (6-1, 200, So.)
Jalen Hoyle (6-0, 191, r-Fr.)
Devin Alves (6-3, 190, Fr.)
Mansoor Delane (6-1, 177, Fr.)
*Conner is using his COVID year, while Peoples and Hawkins each have an extra year of eligibility thanks to COVID.
Just like corner, the Hokies have some experienced bodies at safety, headlined by Conner. As he enters his fifth season with Tech, he’s played over 2,200 snaps across 50 games (37 starts) and has 248 career tackles.
“He’s a guy who has a lot of his reps under his belt,” Prioleau said of Conner. “So there’s a lot of things he can do comfortably. Most importantly, being a leader for this defensive backfield is his primary responsibility. It’s great having a guy that has been on the field, that has seen the ropes in a lot of different positions.”
Peoples is in a similar boat, though it’s difficult to match Conner’s experience. He’s seen action in 28 games and has 90 career tackles, and he’s put his best foot forward since the new staff arrived in the winter. Peoples now has an even better understanding of the defense, especially with improved fundamentals. He and Conner are roommates, too, and they have good chemistry.
“Nasir has been of great value to this team,” Prioleau said. “He’s a really tough, smart player, and he too started every game for us last year. Having him back there on this team provides us with a lot of leadership and experience in the secondary.”
Behind them are five unproven guys. Hawkins has seven career appearances while Stroman played in all 13 games in 2021 as a true freshman. Hoyle redshirted in 2021, and Alves and Delane are fresh out of high school. And though many of those guys haven’t been mentioned a ton since Pry arrived, Delane was referenced on Tech Talk Live on Aug. 19.
“Another guy that has kind of has come onto the scene, and he’s still not even full contact, is a young DB, Mansoor Delane,” Pry said. “He’s still out there in a blue jersey but he’s about to go full, and he’s looked really good, made some nice plays.”
How the depth behind Conner and Peoples shapes out has yet to be determined, but the room certainly looks built for the future.