Virginia Tech saw six freshmen contribute on defense in its win against East Carolina Saturday. Three of them earned their first career starts due to injury, suspension or change in formation.
Tech's new starters for Saturdays game were defensive end James Gayle, cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Antone Exum. Gayle started for a dinged-up Chris Drager, who would return to the lineup later in the game. Fuller started at field corner in place of Jayron Hosley, who was suspended for violating team rules. Exum started at safety because the Hokies utilized a nickel package against ECU's Air Raid offense.
Exum Excels in Secondary
Exum had the best day among the freshmen. In addition to playing well in coverage, especially in the second half, he tied for the team-high in tackles with linebacker Lyndell Gibson. According to safety Eddie Whitley, Exum spent most of the game at his usual free safety spot, while Davon Morgan stayed at rover and Whitley played more of a whip linebacker role in the nickel.
With Exum's performance against ECU, it will be interesting to see if he stays at free safety next week when the Hokies enter ACC play against BC. His athletic ability is considered among the best in secondary, but the coaches still were not sold on his ability to handle the mental aspects of playing free safety. Whitley's ability to play multiple positions could allow him to remain the quarterback of the defense while playing another position and keeping Exum on the field.
Fuller was a surprise starter at field corner after it was announced Hosley was suspended for the game. Prior to Saturday, Cris Hill, a player the coaches were high on during the preseason, was considered Hosley's backup. Surprisingly, Fuller didn't see much action during the game because ECU kept throwing to Rashad Carmichael's side of the field.
Reserves Provide Pass Rush
Gayle did not register a tackle during the game, but fellow freshman J.R. Collins, who started last week against James Madison, was in on four tackles and played well. He was played a pivotal role in getting pressure on ECU quarterback Dominique Davis in the second half. He forced Davis to throw early on one of Carmichael's two interceptions.
Freshman defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins and linebacker Tariq Edwards also got into the game. Edwards came in while Lyndell Gibson was shaken up and recorded one tackle. Hopkins, the younger brother of defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins, recorded a sack and played well when he was in alongside John Graves.
Antoine Hopkins' performance was key for the Hokies as they look to replace Kwamaine Battle, who tore his ACL against JMU and will miss the rest of the season.
Tough Test Next Week
The youth on defense did not bode well for the Hokies early. Tech allowed 24 points and nearly 300 yards of offense in the first half as ECU scored on four of its five drives. There were several missed tackles and mistakes in coverage early, allowing the Pirates to move down the field easily.
In the second half, the light seemed to come on for many of the Hokies' young players, especially Collins. They held ECU to three second-half points and forced punts or turnovers on its final six drives. After a seven-play drive to start the first half led to a field goal, ECU did not have a drive last more than six plays. That drive ended with an interception.
The key for Tech will be getting consistency from its young players. It's something that freshman are rarely able to provide and next week will be the first true road game for all of Tech's freshmen. How they play in the road environment in Chestnut Hill will tell us a lot about what we can expect from them the rest of the season.