Breaking Down Virginia Tech's Concerns With Their Safety Depth

By: Tim Thomas | @TimThomasTLP | Oct 15, 2020
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor

The question of depth has been an issue that many coaches across the country have been worrying about especially on the game-by-game basis with concerns about position groups being wiped out by COVID positive tests and contact tracing.

Virginia Tech has ran into that in their secondary with a depleted group finding a way to do enough to win at Duke but being gashed by North Carolina. Tech did have a few guys return for the UNC game though most of those returners came back on the Friday before after being in quarantine for more than a week. Safe to say, they likely weren't in the best conditioning with that much time away.

Now, Justin Fuente is starting to feel a little better about having a more healthy secondary.

While cornerback should be in a better position going forward especially with the emergence of third-string cornerbacks Nadir Thompson and Dorian Strong as players who can hold their own some against ACC competition.

However, the depth at safety still remains a major concerns that came to the forefront this past Saturday against North Carolina.

To really explain how bad the situation was this past Saturday and how it still remains tenuous, let's go back to how we would have projected Tech's depth chart to look at safety and nickelback back in late August.

August Safety/Nickelback Depth Chart

Free Safety

  1. Divine Deablo
  2. J.R. Walker
  3. Tyree Rodgers

Rover

  1. Devon Hunter
  2. Nasir Peoples
  3. Keonta Jenkins

Nickelback

  1. Chamarri Conner
  2. J.R. Walker
  3. Tyree Rodgers

So basically, our three-deep at those three positions incorporates seven players. Now, let's look at what the depth chart against North Carolina looked like and see who is and isn't on that list.

UNC Game Safety/Nickelback Depth Chart

Free Safety

  1. Tyler Matheny
  2. J.R. Walker
  3. Ny'Quee Hawkins

Rover (Maybe?)

  1. J.R. Walker
  2. Lakeem Rudolph
  3. Alan Tisdale

Nickelback

  1. Chamarri Conner
  2. Various Cornerbacks (Jermaine Waller, Nadir Thompson)

Only two of the seven players who are on our safety depth chart are still on the depth chart for the UNC game and even with that, Walker was the only one still around after the first quarter due to the Chamarri Conner targeting ejection.

So where were the other 5 guys we mentioned above?

  • Divine Deablo and Keonta Jenkins out for undisclosed reason (likely COVID or contact tracing related)
    • Deablo expected to return against Boston College. Jenkins is unknown.
  • Nasir Peoples out for the season due to injury.
  • Devon Hunter suspended indefinitely, facing felony assault charge.
  • Tyree Rodgers out for the season to work on academics.

The results of those outages showed in loads of ways many that were easy to notice and others that were more subtle.

One of those ways was with Tech's defensive approach as one common complaint was that the Hokies were not playing a lot of press coverage early. A main reason for that was likely because of the fact that without Divine Deablo, Tech didn't have a true ball-hawking free safety to provide that help over the way top the way Deablo can.

The best option to do that who was available was J.R. Walker but Tech needed him at rover with Keonta Jenkins out, pushing Tyler Matheny to the starting role for the second-straight week. While Matheny has shown plenty of promise and made some good plays, he's not exactly the ball-hawking safety that Tech desperately needed.

Combine that with Tech playing cornerbacks who in some cases had just gotten out of quarantine the day before, and Justin Hamilton decided to initially try to force UNC to beat the underneath rather than gamble on not having a true ball-hawking safety over the top.

Clearly, that didn't work so well and then Tech tried to press with the Hokies giving up multiple deep balls over the top to Dyami Brown in situations where having someone like Deablo to be the deep safety would have almost certainly made a difference.

Now the good news for Tech is that they should have Deablo back this week and Keonta Jenkins back no later than next week at Wake Forest. However, Tech's depth chart still is a mess to say the least with plenty of inexperience all over the defensive backfield.

The biggest issue is at free safety where outside of Deablo, the Hokies don't have a proven ball-hawking safety as we saw exposed last Saturday.

J.R. Walker definitely has the potential to be that type of player, but is the only other player who really fits that mold and is also the clear first choice backup safety if Tech loses anyone else in their defensive backfield for whatever reason. Tyler Matheny was admirable against Duke but he is more of a box-to-box safety and not a true ball hawk that Tech needs over the top.

While Walker has shown the potential to develop into that, having only two guys who fit that mold is a big problem going forward as well. Plus, Divine Deablo looked quite good against N.C. State and he's a big year away from being at worst, a second or third round pick, something that would be impossible to turn down.

Tyree Rodgers may return next season but you need to have more than two guys you can trust in that role which may be part of the reason why Tech is looking at trying to add a transfer like UNC's Bryson Richardson. Tech's best case scenario would be for Deablo to take the extra year but it would be hard to blame him for jumping to the NFL and cashing in.

Yes, Tech would be in a stronger position with guys having another year of experience and more young, scholarship depth but free safety would be a place of concern with Rodgers being the only possible depth after J.R. Walker without Deablo.

Beyond that, Tech also has a lack of experience after Deablo and Chamarri Conner right now which also showed on Saturday. Tech has three freshmen and one walk-on high up the depth with J.R. Walker, Keonta Jenkins, Lakeem Rudolph, and Tyler Matheny with the next guys including another redshirt freshman, Ny'Quee Hawkins. While we've seen Jenkins and Walker both play admirably, the past two weeks have made it clear that Tech needs their veteran guys to lead the way.

The value of Deablo and Conner has grown significantly and losing one of them is enough to hurt Tech's defensive ability as we saw in the first quarter against UNC and how the pass defense wore down against Duke with the biggest struggles being there. Lose both and we saw what happened in the rest of that UNC game.

Yes, Tech will be boosted by the return of Deablo and hopefully Keonta Jenkins soon as well, but Tech's lack of safety depth is still a big issue going forward with the Hokies being an injury or two away from having a major defensive problem that would make their climb to reach the ACC Championship even steeper.

The good news is this problem should improve somewhat next season as some guys gain experience but even then, there's a reason why Tech is looking to add another veteran safety with the potential of Divine Deablo leaving for the NFL.

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