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Virginia Tech football 2023 season preview: Defensive backs

Previewing the Hokies secondary.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Duke Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

Several schools in college football like to call themselves “DBU.” LSU, Florida, Ohio State and Virginia Tech are some of the schools who’ve used the moniker. While the Hokies haven’t placed as many defensive backs in the first round as the others, just go back well over 20 years and look at the number of DBs that have gone on to play in the NFL, including current safeties coach Pierson Prioleau.

In Brent Pry’s first season with Virginia Tech last year, the Hokies found a gem in true freshman cornerback Mansoor Delane. Delane was a selection on everyone’s all-freshman team in 2022 and returns with a new number and high expectations this fall.

The Hokies lacked depth at cornerback in 2022, but thanks to the NCAA transfer portal, a strong recruiting class and a return from injury from Dorian Strong, this group looks a lot different in 2023.

The Hokies cornerbacks are coached by Derek “Cheetah” Jones, and the safeties are coached by the former Hokie, Prioleau.


1 Dante Lovett, 6-0, 185, Fr.

4 Mansoor Delane, 6-1, 180, So.

8 Braylon Johnson, 6-1, 171, Fr.

13 Derrick Canteen, 6-1, 194, R-Sr.

14 Jonathan Pennix, 6-0, 178, Fr.

23 Thomas Williams, 5-11, 175, Fr.

30 Krystian Williams, 6-0, 169, Fr.

33 Miles Ellis, 5-11, 166, R-So.

37 Josh Gholston, 6-0, 177, R-So.

44 Dorian Strong, 6-0, 180, R-Jr.


5 Nasir Peoples, 6-0, 200, R-Sr.

9 Cameren Fleming, 6-0, 194, Fr.

11 Devin Alves, 6-3, 182, R-So.

15 Jaylen Jones, 6-1, 205, Jr.

16 Luke Bussel, 6-1, 210, R-Sr.

18 Mose Phillips III, 6-2 187, Fr.

26 Jalen Stroman, 6-1, 202, Jr.

27 Tyler Childress, 6-2, 200, R-So.

29 Nyke Johnson, 5-11, 183, R-So.

35 Cade Herdman, 6-0, 178, R-Fr.

40 Stephon Hicks, 6-0, 207, Fr.


There are lots of newcomers here. Canteen, a transfer from Georgia Southern, stands out. Canteen has stepped into a leadership role immediately, with other players, most notably Delane, speaking on Canteen’s leadership. Canteen will start for the Hokies this fall and bring some veteran experience to an overall young secondary.

The Hokies could have several freshmen play this fall. Braylon Johnson, Dante Lovett, Jonathan Pennix and Mose Phillips are all first-year players who could figure into Virginia Tech’s two-deep in 2023. Phillips, the son of a coach, has really impressed VT’s coaching staff and will most definitely play.

There is some excitement back with Virginia Tech’s secondary, and it’s due to an infusion of some much-needed young talent.

Projected starters

Cornerback: Mansoor Delane, Dorian Strong, Derrick Canteen — NICKEL

Free safety: Jalen Stroman

Strong safety: Nasir Peoples


There’s a lot to like about the 2023 Virginia Tech secondary. Delane is on the verge of stardom after a fantastic freshman season. Strong was once a prized freshman but has battled injuries. He’s healthy again. And you add in Canteen, this is the most experienced depth Virginia Tech has had at cornerback in years.

As for the depth, Johnson, Pennix, Lovett, Thomas Williams and/or Krystian Williams could all find their way on the field. Johnson is the son of former Virginia Tech cornerback Loren Johnson, who also happens to be the top high school football coach in the state at powerhouse Highland Springs. Johnson was a fantastic player for the Hokies in the late 1990s.

Lovett is an impressive athlete who will play this fall. Pennix, originally committed as a wide receiver, is now at cornerback and has opened eyes in fall camp. From watching his high school film, cornerback was always the better spot for Pennix in college.

At safety, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the depth here. Stroman gets better every year. It’s only a matter of time before he’s an All-ACC defender. Peoples got a new lease on life under Brent Pry last season and is now one of Tech’s defensive leaders. A physical presence on the backend, People is as reliable of a player as any on Virginia Tech’s 2023 roster. He was an All-ACC selection last fall.

Jaylen Jones is a player who has drawn plenty of praise. The former receiver, moved to safety and Pry has mentioned him multiple times. Jones has good size and has embraced the physical aspect of playing defense. The Hokies are hoping he takes to defensive back much like Divine Deablo did years ago when he switched to defense.

Phillips will play often this fall. Amazingly, he was one of Tech’s last 2023 commitments and could end up being one of the best. He will factor into defensive plans from Week 1 moving forward.

Final thoughts

There is no question, right now, that Virginia Tech’s secondary is deeper and more talented than in recent years. What does that mean? Well, nothing for now. Talent and potential mean nothing. The Hokies need to stay healthy. What would help the secondary more than anything is an improved pass rush. Virginia Tech is hoping to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this fall, which would benefit a ball-hawking secondary.

Can the Hokies return to “DBU” status in 2023? We shall see. But Hokie fans should be excited by the mix of veterans and infusion of young talent.