Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
Virginia Tech returns a lot of defensive talent this season, but there are still plenty of players who could be poised for a breakout this upcoming season. Here's a look at the top 3 defensive breakout candidates for Virginia Tech this upcoming season (click here for the top 3 offensive breakout candidates).
Honorable Mention: DE TyJuan Garbutt
TyJuan Garbutt has been at the top of this list for the past two seasons after showing lots of promise in 2018 as a redshirt freshman. His 2019 was derailed right off the start after suffering an injury in the opener against Boston College that cost him a couple games and which he never seemed to fully recover from till late in the season.
Despite the injury, Garbutt still had 31 tackles including 3.5 for loss, 1 of which was a sack, along with 8 QB hurries, showing lots of promise as a pass rusher. Given his speed and athleticism, Garbutt was the perfect breakout candidate for Virginia Tech for this upcoming season.
However, it appears that his breakout candidacy may have to be postponed till 2021.
Justin Fuente revealed at the beginning of fall camp that Garbutt is not with the team as he is currently dealing with the family matter. Fuente did say that Garbutt still is enrolled at Virginia Tech, but that he currently is unsure if he will play at all during the currently-scheduled fall season.
Whenever Garbutt does return, don't be surprised to see him develop into the talented edge rusher that he has shown the potential to become.
3. CB Armani Chatman
With Caleb Farley opting out of the 2020 season, Tech has an opening at cornerback with Armani Chatman considered the favorite to win the job.
Chatman had a couple rough moments last season that stood out in the memory of Hokie fans given the timing of them against Virginia and Kentucky. However, Chatman was solid overall with plenty of steady play that flew under-the-radar simply because his pass coverage was solid as a whole even if he didn't have the big flashy plays that draw attention like interceptions.
The stats backed that up both traditional, 22 tackles and 2 pass breakups, and the in-depth analytical stats that rated him as one of the top 10 freshman cornerbacks in America.
Here’s something I bet you didn’t know: Armani Chatman had the ninth-best PFF rating of all Power 5 freshman cornerbacks (minimum 200 snaps) in the entire country last season, and that’s out of 48 qualified players. Farley's heir apparent had a very strong season.— Chris Coleman (@ChrisColemanTSL) July 30, 2020
Chatman will most likely not be nearly as good as Farley, but the 757 native has more than enough talent to be an above-average cornerback in the ACC and form a strong pairing with arguably the best cornerback in the ACC, Jermaine Waller.
Of course, Chatman will face a significant challenge from Illinois State grad transfer Devin Taylor with Taylor now having an extra week to integrate into Tech's defense before the start of the season.
Even if Taylor were to pass Chatman for a starting job, it wouldn't be surprising to see Chatman receive regular playing time especially early in the season as Taylor adjusts to being in a new defense.
Chatman may end up back on this list next year, but it's clear that the 757 native has a bright future ahead with the Hokies.
2. DT DaShawn Crawford
DaShawn Crawford had a good debut season for Virginia Tech after transferring from the JUCO ranks with 27 tackles including 6 for loss and 3.5 sacks in 11 starts. However, Crawford feels poised to take the next step this upcoming season and become one of the ACC's top defensive tackles before moving on to the NFL.
Crawford is the lone returning starter among the top 3 largely due to the fact that he proved to be Tech's best defensive tackle last season with injuries limiting his numbers somewhat in the end.
Crawford projected to be a good run defender coming out of the JUCO ranks but proved to be a quality pass-rushing defensive tackle as well. Additionally, Crawford acclimated well to the collegiate level after making the jump from JUCO and showed that he definitely has the talent to develop into an All-ACC caliber DT.
The question now is whether Crawford can indeed take the next step and reach those ranks especially with their being some room for new defensive tackles to rise to the top of the conference.
Based on what he has shown to date, there's no reason to believe he won't take that step.
1. DB Devon Hunter
Coming in at #1 is a man who has been waiting patiently for his opportunity for years and now will get it, Devon Hunter.
After the whip linebacker spot proved to not be a good fit for Hunter, Tech moved him back to rover and allowed him to develop behind Reggie Floyd as the heir to Floyd. During that time last season, Hunter also earned some playing time on his own and even 2 starts on his way to finishing last season with 16 tackles.
Now with Floyd gone, the path has been cleared for Hunter to take over at what has been called the rover position in the past, the place that Tech's defensive staff has seen as his best fit.
Hunter has definitely shown the potential to fit that role and be a very good box-to-box safety who has also shown plenty of comfort in zone coverage in the past. His comfort in zone coverage should also give defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton the ability to create some different looks and disguises with Hunter dropping back at times and Divine Deablo shifting into the box.
As a former elite recruit, Hunter came to Virginia Tech with high expectations and could have easily left when things didn't go right early in his career knowing his talent. However, Hunter has stayed the course and now has his opportunity to prove that he can live up to the expectations that Hunter had placed upon him coming out of high school.
Now, it's Devon Hunter's time to take over and he appears more than ready to seize this opportunity by storm.