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Defensive Backfield: The Hokies' “One O’Clock Jump”

They're Big Band Jazz. They're young, fast, experienced... though a bit challenged by injury this Spring... but #DBU is back. It might be #DBCC, but that just means they'll be here for a while longer. Getting even better.

A Military Bowl Bearcat Miss Courtesy of the Hokie Secondary
A Military Bowl Bearcat Miss Courtesy of the Hokie Secondary
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Defensive Back University is looking more like Defensive Back Community College for this Spring.  Please, don’t take this the wrong way.  The observation is purely an academic level oriented.  With twelve of 18 roster positions being held by Sophomores and Freshman, and  exactly one Senior on the entire squad (a true Senior, not a Redshirt) one would think that there is no depth in Torrien Gray’s group.

One would have the wrong impression.  There are sixteen seasons of playing experience on that list of 18 players.  This squad is deep, talented, and above all EXPERIENCED.  Okay, we have to account for the ace starting left and right cornerbacks Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller are rehabbing injuries this Spring so they won’t see playing time. That still leaves an excellent group behind them to get some good practice under game conditions.

Here is the current listing from the original Spring Roster, in the usual mashup format with the depth chart.

Number

Name

Exp

Position - Depth

Height

Weight

Eligibility

3

Greg Stroman

1

CB - L1

6' 0"

160

So

17

Shawn Payne

-

CB - L2

6' 2"

191

r-Fr

6

Mook Reynolds

-

CB - L3

6' 0"

172

Fr

12

Erikk Banks

-

CB - L4

5' 9"

176

r-So

19

Chuck Clark

2

CB - R1

6' 0"

206

Jr

22

Terrell Edmunds

-

CB - R2

6' 2"

195

r-Fr

27

Curtis Williams

-

CB - R3

5' 10"

170

r-So

39

Elisha Boyd

-

CB - R4

6' 0"

175

r-Fr

26

Desmond Frye

2

FS - 1

6' 2"

196

r-Jr

21

C.J. Reavis

1

FS - 1

6' 1"

205

So

16

Greg Jones

1

FS - 2

6' 2"

207

r-Jr

23

Der'Woun Greene

2

FS - 3

5' 10"

189

r-Jr

13

Gahrul Reed

-

FS - 4  (CB)

5' 9"

156

r-Fr

2

Donovan Riley

3

ROV - 1

5' 11"

210

Sr

24

Anthony Shegog

1

ROV - 2

6' 2"

212

r-So

36

Adonis Alexander

-

ROV - 3

6' 3"

193

Fr

31

Brandon Facyson

1

CB  - L1  (Rehab)

6' 2"

184

r-So

11

Kendall Fuller

2

CB  - R1 (Rehab)

6' 0"

197

Jr

It’s difficult to see anyone who stands out as to being a concern.  If there is a number in the Experience column that has been significant live game pressure and performance.

Let’s take a look at the positions and what is generally expected of them to see if there are any potential changes in the works.  First, let’s stipulate some facts so that I don’t end up repeating them for each position.  No matter the position, defensive backs need to be:

Fast – 4.3 speed is the top of the range, and only Rovers getting to nudge up to that level.

Shorter/lighter – This comes with the speed requirement.  There are some exceptions, and our team seems to have pushed out some very respectable 6 foot plus defensive backs.  Cam Chancellor being the current reigning king of Tech professionals pulling that off.   Cornerbacks can be smaller than Safeties but not always.  It depends on the defensive scheme, and the personnel (that often dictates the scheme).

Balance/coordination – This one is what gets so many guys stuck at the bottom of depth charts.  A fact of life for a defensive back is the physical demand for balanced transition from backpedalling to cross over steps and to running in one direction while looking in another, while maintaining contact with the player being covered.

Vision/anticipation – The first fundamental key to a defensive back’s job is to know where the ball is, and from where the ball is coming.  Usually it’s the quarterback, but gadget plays are often intended to catch defensive backs flat footed, with their heads turned in the wrong direction.  Vision wise a defensive back must have a gyroscope in his noggin, with an ability to keep his eyes shifting constantly between the receiver being covered, and the offensive player with the ball.  Which is where anticipation comes in, and the list of things that a defensive back needs to instinctively anticipate are:

  • Whether or not the route he’s covering is hot.  (This is a floating decision that changes multiple times before and during a play.)  Is he going to see the ball coming in his direction, and where does he need to be positioned to either do one of; knocking it down, picking it off, or getting the tackle if the pass is completed.
  • Whether or not the play is a running play disguised as a passing play or a passing play disguised otherwise.  This decision occurs more often with the advent of the Option/Read, Read/Option offense where the Quarterback is a legitimate regular part of the running game.  Defensive backs are critical to limiting the damage on runs breaking in to the second level.  A DB who continues in pass coverage when the pass play converts to a running play is no help to his team.
  • DB’s also need be aware of the creases in the zone, who is man-to-man, who can be covered man-to-man, where the zone responsibilities change, and in that case that the offense is going to notice those things and try to use them to its advantage.

There is just a whole lot more going on in the defensive backfield than lining up picking up a particular receiver and trying to make a pest of yourself.  Add to that, there is the double whammy of the need to perform two differing types of coverage, often from the same position in the formation, and change that responsibility and type of coverage on the fly.  And do it instinctively within three seconds of the execution of the play.

Defensive Back might be the most instinctive position on the field; but it also must be one of the most well-rehearsed.  It’s like Jazz.  It looks like it’s completely ad hoc when it’s actually disciplined and skillfully crafted; if the results are to be pleasing to both audience and the musician.

So what are the traditional positions, with a bit of Foster and Gray tweaking to make it all more interesting:

Cornerback – (which always sounds like quarterback when the sound is bad) – This position changed as the passing game became increasingly important.  In the old run heavy defenses the Left and Right Cornerbacks were the Outside Linebackers – who were usually lighter and faster than the others.   The only major change to the position besides the name was the size of the player; Cornerbacks went from the fastest linebackers to the fastest men on the field.  They are the man-to-man coverage guys in most defenses, and if your corners aren’t good, your pass defense is going to fail, period.

There are two Safeties, Free and Strong – the positions are very different and very similar, depending on the emphasis of the defense.

Strong Safety – This is Bud Foster’s Rover (ROV).  The Rover is just what the name suggests, it’s a roving strong safety, and is often seen playing as a second Whip linebacker in run situations, Rover’s also move up into the box to threaten or execute blitz opportunities.  Rovers are often assigned zone coverage (I have rarely seen a Rover cover man-to-man, unless someone has sniffed out a Tight End drag, or out route on a hot read.  The Strong Safety/Rover’s primary responsibility is the run especially as it crosses the 2nd level and threatens to break deep.   His primary passing responsibility is zone over, and Rovers can be famous ball hawks if they play off the zone switch with a man-to-man match up.

Free Safety – This job has not changed; I doubt that it ever will change.  The Safetyman is the last gasp effort at stopping the big play.  The Free Safety’s primary responsibility is the pass, but really his duty is to stop ANYTHING that goes through the 3rd level boundary to keep it out of the end zone; pass or run.  The position IS the function.  As is noted, the Free Safety’s position on the field really depends on the offensive formation, the configuration of the zone, and his responsibility in keeping whatever is going on, in front of him.  One of Tech’s biggest weaknesses in its secondaries of the last few seasons has been at Free Safety.  Too often the FS gets caught out of position, with the back of his head turned to the action, and two steps behind a receiver that he should have never allowed to pass him.   In double coverage opportunities we have been burned several times by ball hawking Free Safeties forgetting their assigned job is to stop the play.  They’d go for the pick, forgetting that THEY were the emergency stopper if the receiver catches the ball.

The question once again becomes, can #DBCC be bigger, bolder, smarter, and keep the aggressiveness that has made its alter ego #DBU on the top of everyone’s NCAA college defense discussion sheet?  This unit has some serious experience under its belt.  If the coaching of the secondary doesn't change much, I fully anticipate that the dashes in the Experience column of the roster mash-up will change.  Coaches Foster and Gray always seem to have the need to use their benches, and we’ll see if these new guys fit in as well as the old new guys did, last season, and the season before… for the last 20 years or so.

As to the Jazz… I like mine Big Band, and this secondary’s theme is Count Basie’s "One O’clock Jump" fast, fun, with just the right application of the perfect piano key here and there to make it all come together.

Next Up… Blacksburg! And the Spring Game at Lane Stadium.