Going into last season, many expected elite recruit Devon Hunter to come in and earn a starting job for Virginia Tech with rover being the likely spot after Terrell Edmunds moved to free safety, seeming to clear the way for Hunter.
Instead, Hunter dealt with a concussion during much of fall camp while Reggie Floyd held on tight to that starting job and emerged as one of the ACC’s best young safeties. Hunter did go on to play some on special teams, but his role was limited with Hunter not playing a lot on the defensive side of the field.
With Floyd at rover and Hunter not being as good of a fit at free safety as Divine Deablo or Khalil Ladler, Hunter’s path to a starting role didn’t seem clear entering the spring. However, Bud Foster knows the talent he has with Hunter and put him at the whip linebacker spot that has increasingly become more of a nickelback/third safety/hybrid linebacker role.
At the time, the move seemed like a long-term plan with Hunter seemingly being groomed into the replacement for Mook Reynolds at the whip for the 2019 season. Then, some disappointing news changed things.
On Monday, Virginia Tech announced that Mook Reynolds was kicked off the team immediately. While some wondered if Reynolds would end up at CB after the rough news at that spot, this announcement made it clear that Devon Hunter’s time at the whip was coming a year earlier than expected back in March.
When the news about Jeremy Webb and Adonis Alexander broke, the cornerback immediately became the biggest defensive question mark by a long ways (and rightfully so). While the news about Reynolds was disappointing, the presence of Hunter gave the Hokies as good of an insurance policy as any team could have.
Of course, Hunter hasn’t played any meaningful defensive snaps at the collegiate level, but he has shown a skill set that should fit the whip linebacker spot well.
First, it starts with the fact that he has very good size for the spot at 6’0” and 222 pounds, only 5 pounds lighter than expected starting LB Dylan Rivers. While Mook Reynolds was still able to be fairly effective at a much smaller size, Hunter has the type of size you want for a LB battling in the box and trying to stop opposing RBs. In addition, Hunter’s skill set makes it more likely that VT will keep him on the field in short-yardage situations and against Georgia Tech’s triple option, something that VT didn’t do this past season with Anthony Shegog rotating in at whip especially against the Yellow Jackets in 2017.
Coming out of high school, Hunter was known as a fairly versatile safety who was comfortable roaming in zone coverage or playing in the box and around the line of scrimmage. Hunter has shown the type of high football IQ and instincts that are required for a whip linebacker spot that at times can be a very cerebral role given the different ways Bud Foster now uses this position.
The fact that Hunter spent the whole spring working at whip linebacker should give him a lot of comfort at that position. Hunter was also able to build some chemistry with the Hokies’ new likely starting LB pair of Dylan Rivers and Rayshard Ashby, all three of whom spent significant time on special teams this past season.
Hunter didn’t stand out during the Spring Game, but he also didn’t make any mistakes and did well in a whip linebacker role that isn’t necessarily known for a being flashy, attention-grabbing position like cornerback or defensive end can be.
One area where Devon Hunter isn’t as good as Reynolds currently is man coverage. Hunter has the athleticism to develop into a solid man coverage player, but Reynolds was above-average in man coverage for a nickelback/third safety role in part because of the fact that his initial development and experience came at cornerback, not safety.
While Hunter could have some problems with speedier receivers working in the slot, Hunter has the size and athletic capability to be a reliable man coverage DB on tight ends and other bigger, possession receivers.
There’s no doubt that the loss of Mook Reynolds is disappointing on a defense that already lacked lots of experience. With Reynolds’ departure, the Hokies will only have one returning starter in their back 7 in Reggie Floyd. That lack of experience is almost impossible to make up regardless of how talented players like Hunter are.
However, when you have someone as talented as Devon Hunter, losing a guy like Reynolds isn’t nearly as much of a loss as it could be. For Bud Foster, the challenge becomes preparing him and the rest of the Hokies’ youthful linebacking corps for a very hostile environment at Florida State against a FSU team that will be ready to test them.