Virginia Tech revealed their first two-deep depth chart for the 2021 season ahead of their Friday night showdown against #10 North Carolina which included a few unexpected surprises and notable changes. Here's a look at some of the defensive highlights along with the full depth chart below.
Check out our story on the offensive depth chart highlights here.
Virginia Tech has released its Week 1 depth chart. Some quick observations to follow.— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) August 30, 2021
Most notable listing? Freshman Kaden Moore as the starting RG and Silas Dzansi as the starting RT. Johnny Jordan as backup C, though I'd expect him some at RG too. #Hokies pic.twitter.com/tCgAcqyztO
Keonta Jenkins over Tae Daley at Free Safety
The biggest defensive surprise comes at free safety with freshman Keonta Jenkins, in his second season in Blacksburg, beating out senior DB Tae Daley for the free safety job. This came after most assumed Daley would be the guy at free safety after the Hokies moved him to there specifically at the beginning of fall camp, a move that seemed to be made to pair him with Devon Hunter.
Instead, it will be Jenkins who will be pairing with Hunter and receiving a second-straight start in a Hokies' season opener.
Jenkins has received his fair share of praise this fall camp as a player who has grown a lot since he briefly started in 2020 before eventually shuffling down the depth chart into a smaller role. Jenkins was impressive though in last year's season opener with 8 tackles in his first of two starts before the Hokies eventually shifted Devin Taylor to safety to pair with Divine Deablo.
Now, Jenkins has clearly taken steps forward to reclaim this job despite the addition of new competition from Tae Daley. Defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton also recently commented on the growth of Jenkins both physically and mentally to prepare him for this opportunity.
"A guy that has all the physical tools to be really special. Mentally, he's exactly where I anticipated where he would be through spring and fall camp where he's a mature guy, but he's still 19, 20 years old. He's mature for his age, but he's growing in that respect. He's very coachable, and he's a guy that is pretty literal too. When you coach him on something, you got to make sure that he understands when literal is applicable and when it's play within the instincts in the course of a game. He's a guy that's very much fun to coach, and hopefully we'll keep developing him because I really think that if he will do that, he has a chance to be a really special player," Hamilton said.
However, Hamilton has had high praise for the veteran experience that Daley can bring to the roster as someone who can almost be like an extra coach on the field. That experience could prove quite valuable against Sam Howell and North Carolina which could lead to more Daley in the opener than expected via the depth chart with games against MTSU and Richmond being opportunities for the higher upside Jenkins to grow more instinctually.
There's no doubt that it is a surprise to see Jenkins as the conclusive starter over Daley, but it will be interesting to see how this battle develops over the course of the season especially as Daley gets more comfortable working at free safety rather than boundary.
Mario Kendricks Only Outright DT Starter
Going into fall camp, most expected that Jordan Williams would be the clear #1 defensive tackle even with the talent the Hokies were returning with that group. However, it's not Williams or even Norell Pollard who had been the top of the sophomore DTs but Mario Kendricks who has risen to the top of the depth chart to be the #1 DT.
Kendricks may not have put up spectacular numbers in 2020 but he was solid and consistent with 14 tackles including 1.5 for loss while making his first career start. Clearly, Kendricks has taken his game to the next level to separate himself as the only clear starter at DT at least on the depth chart though it's easy to envision this group being a rotation among the top 3.
Meanwhile, Jordan Williams seems like the inevitable pick to receive a high percentage of snaps over Norell Pollard as the Clemson transfer showed plenty of promise during his time with the Tigers recording 8 total tackles for loss including 4 sacks over 3 seasons. Williams definitely feels like a Khalil Herbert-type transfer who hasn't fully had a chance to breakout and could do just that in 2021 to become an All-ACC First or Second Teamer.
Meanwhile, Norell Pollard should also get a lot of playing time with it being quite possible that we see a lot of rotation among all three of Kendricks, Williams, and Pollard. Pollard started every game last season and put up solid numbers with 30 tackles including 4.5 for loss, 2.5 of which were sacks. Keeping a guy like Pollard off the field is rightly going to be hard and it's easy to envision all 3 splitting time throughout the season.
Josh Fuga is unsurprisingly the clear #4 DT after showing plenty of promise last season with 10 tackles including a sack. While the Hokies may not be very deep up the middle, the drop off takes a while to kick in with Fuga being a solid fourth DT who can absolutely give a quality 20-30 snaps per game at least.
Maxx Philpott is likely the fifth defensive tackle and while he didn't record any stats last season, he did play in 9 games and should be able to play some quality snaps in a pinch. He's also shown some upside and should be a solid depth guy for years to come.
However, get ready for plenty of competition among the Hokies' top 3 defensive tackles in a unit that lacks depth but is loaded with talent with the players they do have.
Armani Chatman vs. Dorian Strong at Second Cornerback Job
We've discussed this competition previously, but the battle for the Hokies' second starting cornerback job has really become a two-man battle between Armani Chatman and Dorian Strong. As expected, that battle goes on into the season with Chatman and Strong both right there.
Strong was considered the favorite by many on the outside given his unexpectedly strong debut in 2021, but Chatman has received loads of praise for having an impressive camp from Justin Fuente, Justin Hamilton, and Ryan Smith. Combine that with the experience that Chatman has making starts in 2019 and 2020, and seeing Chatman right there shouldn't really come as a surprise.
There's no doubt that this duo likely will rotate a lot early in games with whoever is playing at their best likely to get the most important down the stretch of tight games. Both players have proven they can be high caliber ACC starting cornerbacks which gives Tech strong depth should they suffer an injury to either Chatman, Strong, or star Jermaine Waller.
Additionally, Waller could be a big season away from leaving early for a solid draft selection so Chatman and Strong could be the future starting cornerback duo in 2022 if Waller has a really big year.
For now, the Chatman vs. Strong battle will rage on with no end in sight whether this season or even next year.
You can read more on our feature on the second starting cornerback battle here.