Virginia Tech's defense stepped up in a big way on Friday night with a performance reminiscent of some of Tech's great defenses forcing 3 interceptions and 6 sacks on their way to a 17-10 victory against #10 North Carolina.
Here's a look at three of my defensive takeaways from the Hokies' win over the Tar Heels
1. A Throwback Cornerback Unit
Cornerback was seen as a strong position group for Virginia Tech entering this season, but Tech's CB trio of Jermaine Waller, Armani Chatman, and Dorian Strong showed that they might be the best position group on the team.
The trio of cornerbacks were dominant as they combined for 9 tackles, 1 interception, 4 pass breakups, and 1 tackle for loss as all three were heavily involved locking down North Carolina's receivers on the outside. Of course, you could argue that UNC's outside receivers were a major weakness which is fair, but this was a clear case of Tech's CBs playing well because they're quite good, not because the opponent isn't.
This conversation has to start with Jermaine Waller who was healthy and looked like the Waller of 2019 and then some with 7 tackles plus an interception and a pass breakup. Waller may have been the best player on the field for either team outside of maybe Amare Barno (more on him next), and looked like the player who was considered one of the ACC's best returning cornerbacks entering 2020.
Meanwhile, there may be a competition between Armani Chatman and Dorian Strong but both showed that not only are they still high level starting cornerbacks in the ACC, but they both have continued to get better. Strong was the highest rated defensive player by Pro Footbal Focus for the Hokies while Chatman was dominant in coverage and didn't see many balls thrown his way with his known tackle coming on a perfectly read screen play that he blew up for a big hit and big loss for UNC.
CBs coach Ryan Smith deserves plenty of praise for the job he's done building up his position room as it grows clearer everyday that Smith is a rising star who will be hard to keep given how he probably should be a defensive coordinator somewhere very soon at a minimum.
Overall, this cornerback unit felt very reminiscent of the groups that we've seen in the past whether it's the mid-2000s that included guys like DeAngelo Hall, Brandon Flowers, Macho Harris, and Roc Carmichael or the 2011-2016 stretch that saw Tech have players like Kyle Fuller, Brandon Facyson, Kendall Fuller, and Greg Stroman at CB plus Chuck Clark and Terrell Edmunds start out there before moving to safety.
Of course, they might not be on that level just yet, but they've shown they have the potential to get to that level and set off the next great run of Hokie cornerbacks for DBU.
2. The Dangerous Edge Duo of Amare Barno and TyJuan Garbutt
Plenty of people knew about Amare Barno around the ACC but not nationally while TyJuan Garbutt was an under-the-radar guy even probably among some around Hokie Nation. That's no longer the case as Barno made clear he's one of the best DEs in America, and him & Garbutt are one of the best DE duos at least east of the Mississippi.
Barno was one of the best defensive players in the country this weekend standing out for the Hokies with 6 tackles including 3.5 for loss with 1.5 being sacks plus a 1 forced fumble and a QB hurry. If Barno doesn't at least receive some national recognition and every possible ACC defensive weekly honor, then something isn't right.
There's no doubt that Barno likely boosted his NFL Draft stock significantly with his week 1 performance especially given the fact that there were 19 NFL scouts and personnel in attendance in addition to the numerous others watching what was the clear biggest game on Friday night.
The thing with Barno was not only is he a good pass rusher, but he's an even better run defender and a versatile defensive weapon who doesn't have to have his hand in the dirt, and can even start out in a semi-spy/coverage role to make big plays happen.
While Barno was the known commodity, many wondered what TyJuan Garbutt could do after a normal offseason compared to last year when he was dealing with some off-the-field family health challenges that understandably led to him taking some time away from football.
Now, Garbutt showed on Friday night that he is truly "back" as Bill Teerlinck said in the lead up to the season as shown by his dominance with 5 tackles including 2 sacks plus a forced fumble. The former four-star recruit looked like the player who showed promise in 2019 as a full-time starting DE and seemed poise for a breakout 2020 that may have been simply delayed to 2021 rather than never to be.
Both players are similar as both are speedier edge rushers who make you think they are pass rush first players, but both have well-rounded games, have track records that back up their run stuffing credentials more than anything else, and give Tech lots of schematic versatility with their ability to drop into zone and spy coverages.
Keep an eye on the Hokies' star DE duo with a potential All-American in Barno and a potential All-ACC player in Garbutt.
3. Virginia Tech's True Top Safety: Nasir Peoples
There was plenty of intrigue around Virginia Tech's starting safety duo when it was revealed to be Devon Hunter and Keonta Jenkins according to the depth chart. Most also expected Vanderbilt transfer Tae Daley to be the third safety and likely receive lots of playing time.
However, the depth chart doesn't always matter when it comes time for kickoff and that showed as their was only one safety who received more than 40 defensive snaps let alone 60+ defensive snaps: Nasir Peoples.
To say this was a surprise would be an understatement but the fact that Peoples had a large role shouldn't come as big of a surprise as some may feel it is.
Throughout the past couple years, Peoples hasn't been a player that has been directly asked about towards coaches among us in the media, but there were plenty of times where Justin Fuente or others would sneak in compliments about the play and potential of Peoples.
That included the lead up to last season prior to Peoples' injury where it was clear he was poised to be the starter at what is now boundary safety. While Peoples didn't get to be the guy then, it appears clear now that he is the guy going forward and was the safety that Tech internally may have actually trusted the most.
Now, Peoples may not have the same upside as some of his fellow safeties including Devon Hunter and could be at risk of losing his spot later in the season as Hunter gets more time back in the program. However, Peoples is the top guy and has also produced with 6 tackles against UNC in a strong performance that should have him as a primary safety for the foreseeable future.