While Virginia Tech football has a few questions on the offensive side of the ball, the defense may have some bigger questions across the board from the interior of the defensive line to the edges of the secondary. With that said, here’s a look at three of the biggest questions for the Hokies’ defense heading into summer.
1. Who Starts Alongside Jarrod Hewitt at DT, How Does DT Depth Shake Out?
Virginia Tech’s defensive line remains a place of great competition but while defensive end is a place for greater confidence given some of the promise players like Tyjuan Garbutt and Emmanuel Belmar showed last season (in addition to Houshun Gaines), defensive tackle remains a place of greater intrigue and question.
The one thing that is certain on the interior of the defensive line is Jarrod Hewitt. The winner of the Hard Hat MVP this spring has emerged as a leader on this Virginia Tech team and has made big gains both on and off the field. Now, the hope is that Hewitt’s improvement this spring translates on the field this fall after an okay first season as a starter with 15 tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss. While Hewitt’s performance went beyond the numbers, the Hokies will need Hewitt to be a lot more productive with no Ricky Walker to help this fall.
Meanwhile, the other defensive tackle spot remains up for grabs with Robert Porcher IV and Dashawn Crawford being the top contenders. Crawford appeared to make a solid impression this spring and while he feels like the favorite on paper given his JUCO, Porcher still has a great chance with the other likely to be the third defensive tackle.
Zion DeBose could also be a name to watch as a bigger defensive end who would fit the mold of a lighter, more athletic DT that Charley Wiles has used in the past. However, it’s uncertain still as to whether VT will move DeBose inside or keep him at defensive end.
However, the Hokies will have plenty of more freshman and JUCO players coming in this summer starting with Jaden Cunningham, the less-heralded of the two JUCO DTs. Cunningham brings the type of size that Virginia Tech hasn’t had that often at defensive tackle and projects as a potential run stuffer. However, there are some questions about Cunningham’s JUCO productivity and how well he projects at this level.
The trio of freshmen could also be competing for playing time on the DT depth chart including Josh Fuga who was a late riser for the Hokies and had an impressive season. Him and Mario Kendricks both have the size to compete early for playing while Norell Pollard could use a year focusing on adding size to his frame. However, all three of these defensive tackles could end up being major beneficiaries of the new redshirt rule given the potential for them to rotate in at times as a fifth defensive tackle along with preferred walk-on Maxx Philpott who had a strong spring in the weight room and also has the bulk to play early.
Outside of Jarrod Hewitt, what’s clear is that nothing is certain at all at defensive tackle heading into the fall.
2. How Will the Whip Linebacker Position Shake Out?
The inevitable competition at whip linebacker was wiped out due to injuries to Khalil Ladler along with a late spring injury to Chamarri Conner that kept him out of the Spring Game. Additionally, Tyree Rodgers also was out for the spring though the main way he would get involved is if Rodgers impressed enough at free safety to make Bud Foster want to start him with Divine Deablo at whip as he did at times last season.
While Ladler is the frontrunner, Conner has impressed this spring with multiple teammates specifically mentioning him as a player making plays in practice. Conner also has game experience and though almost all of it is either on special teams or in garbage times situations, that experience should be valuable for Conner going into this fall.
With JUCO transfer Brion Murray not appearing to be a factor, it appears that Bud Foster is looking more at not only someone who can be good enough covering tight ends at the whip position but also someone who is a very effective run defending, box-to-box safety type player which Conner fits the mold. However, Ladler may have an advantage given how Conner isn’t the most proficient player in coverage with Ladler likely to match up better against speedy slot receivers.
The one sleeper in this competition may be Nasir Peoples who was able to make some plays in the Spring Game and is more of a coverage-first nickelback. Someone like Peoples could give Bud Foster the option of using Reggie Floyd or Divine Deablo similar to what Ladler would bring to the table while Conner would likely only be swapped around on the field with Reggie Floyd at times given his skill set.
Virginia Tech has plenty of intriguing talent at whip linebacker in what should be one of the more interesting competitions of the fall.
3. Will Virginia Tech Have New Starters at Cornerback?
Cornerback was a position of weakness for the Hokies and while Caleb Farley and Bryce Watts should improve this offseason (and showed some signs of improvement towards the end of last season), it’s reasonable to expect a competition during fall camp in part due to the other potential options.
It start with Jeremy Webb who told media at the end of spring practice that he is expecting to be ready to go for fall camp after suffering two Achilles injuries since arriving in Blacksburg. While questions do remain about whether Webb will be able to be the same player, a 100% healthy Webb definitely has the potential to not only be a factor in this competition, but become the Hokies’ top cornerback spot if the past Achilles injuries haven’t affected him that much.
Meanwhile, the Hokies added another JUCO cornerback this offseason in Brion Murray. While many thought Murray would be a contender at the nickelback spot, his route to playing time will more likely come at cornerback. Murray is an intriguing prospect and definitely has plenty of time with three years of eligibility remaining and while he could factor in the starting competition, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he ended up on the two-deep regardless.
Jermaine Waller was able to gain some playing time as the third cornerback at times while Jovonn Quillen played some significant snaps last season. Quillen is running out of time to make something happen and apears to be trending in the wrong direction while Waller feels like a sleeper in this competition who could be one of the bigger surprises. Nadir Thompson (due to injury) and Armani Chatman both redshirted last season and are the biggest unknowns with it being hard to make predictions on either given how we haven’t seen them to this point.
However, the conversation always comes back to Caleb Farley and Bryce Watts, both of whom showed improvement but neither of whom were convincing enough to feel safe in their starting jobs.
Farley has proven to be a tremendous athlete with a great combination of size and speed for the position yet has struggled with some of the details and physicality of the position. While Farley’s having another full offseason at cornerback should help his development in terms of the details of playing in coverage, questions about physicality especially as an open-field tackler remain to be answered.
Watts may have showed the most improvement of the pair at the end of last season and while Farley may receive the more excitement becomes of his physical attributes, Watts was the Hokies’ best cornerback at the end of last season. However, there are some questions about the ceiling for Watts while he also will likely need to add some size given his slimmer frame that didn’t always hold up the best. However, while most feel that Farley may have the better shot of the pair at retaining their starting jobs, Watts’ play towards the end of last season suggests otherwise.
Cornerback continues to be a major question mark and while the competition may be wide open, the concerns won’t be able to be alleviated until Virginia Tech takes the field at Boston College and VT’s cornerbacks have a chance to show if they take the next step to push VT’s defense back towards what most expect from a Bud Foster defense.