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May 8, 2014

Defensive backfield loaded with talent and depth

By: Jimmy Robertson

Perhaps no group on the Hokies’ roster possesses more depth than the defensive backfield – and not just in terms of bodies, but talent. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches.

But defensive backs coach Torrian Gray isn’t about to apologize. Not after last season, when his top two cornerbacks played together for just two snaps the entire season because of injuries. And not after this spring, when Kyshoen Jarrett missed the entire spring with a shoulder injury and Brandon Facyson missed all but one practice because of a stress reaction in his left leg.

“Hopefully, we can get everyone healthy at one time, but you never know,” Gray said. “That may not happen. We’ll see how that goes. We were never healthy last year, but obviously the young guys played a huge role for us.

“You have different caliber of players, but I think our depth would be able to sustain a couple of injuries if that were to happen like it did last year. So I’m pleased with the depth and direction we’re headed.”

Any discussion of Tech’s secondary needs to start with Kendall Fuller, last year’s ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year. He started 12 of the 13 games as a true freshman and finished with six interceptions.

Though only a rising sophomore, Fuller anchors Tech’s secondary. His coverage skills and his ability to tackle in open space allow Gray and defensive coordinator Bud Foster to use him in many ways.

“You don’t want to take him for granted because he comes out and he’s so consistent every day,” Gray said. “He’s so smart. He’s as smart a cornerback as I’ve been around. His football IQ and his understanding of the defense has gotten better. He’s fundamentally sound, and he’s tough. He has all the intangibles, and he’s put it all together to have a great spring.”

Fuller and Detrick Bonner served as the leaders of Tech’s secondary this spring. The Hokies’ defense played so well toward the end of spring ball primarily because Fuller and Bonner took care of things on the back end.

Bonner, who has started 30 games the past three seasons, really took on a leadership role this spring. The defense needed it, too, considering only five seniors are projected on the first and second units.

“I’ve been impressed with Detrick,” Gray said. “He’s put an emphasis on being a leader, and I like the way he carried the group and led them and the defense. He was doing what you would hope seniors would do. He’s grasped that part of things, and his play has exemplified that. I’m really pleased with what he’s done this spring.

“The biggest thing he and Kendall do is communicate. They talk, and it’s loud, and there’s no confusion when they’re out there because they’re out there controlling things. I’ve never really had that to the extent that Kendall gives it as a corner, but Bonner, that’s what you expect from your safeties, and he loves that role anyway. It’s been fun to sit back and watch those guys lead and talk and communicate with the group.”

Bonner’s leadership and play this spring also made things easier for Desmond Frye, who worked with the first-team unit because of Jarrett’s injury. Frye made the most of his reps, as Gray felt that Frye was the biggest surprise among his group this spring.

Frye is a long and lanky player who lacks bulk, but he held up pretty well in run support this spring. In one scrimmage, he made a nice one-on-one tackle of 232-pound tailback Marshawn Williams.

“Desmond has probably been our most improved guy in the secondary,” Gray said. “He’s really stepped up, and because of Bonner and Kendall talking and setting things up, Desmond was able to just go out there and play. I love the way he played. I thought he improved a lot, and I feel much better about him.”

Others who stood out in the secondary this spring included Donovan Riley, Der’Woun Greene and Chuck Clark. Riley worked in Facyson’s spot this spring, getting most of the reps with the first-team unit.

Riley, like Frye, played in all 13 games a year ago, but saw most of his action on special teams. This spring, he showed that he could be a playmaking cornerback.

“He’s been a pleasant surprise in terms of being more consistent,” Gray said. “He has athletic ability, and he has toughness, but the mental aspect slowed him down. He’d do things that weren’t necessarily part of his assignment, and those were the things that kept me from fully trusting him and feeling comfortable with him in a game situation. But he’s taken steps this spring to be much more consistent.”

Gray also liked what he saw from Greene and Clark. In fact, he said there was not much of a gap between those two and Riley. Greene backed up Riley in scrimmages, while Clark was behind Fuller. Clark also got a lot of reps in Tech’s nickel package (e.g. five defensive backs), as Foster and Gray worked on that package more this spring than in previous springs.

One of these two will end up back at free safety or rover. Greene played at free safety last fall, but Gray may leave him at corner and move Clark back.

“That’s a discussion we’ll have as we go into fall,” Gray said. “I’m pleased with the progress those guys made at corner. Chuck played it some last year, and with Greene, it was new to him. Riley was naturally ahead of those guys, but those guys have done a great job, and I like the way they played.”

Tech’s depth chart on the opening day of practice in August probably features a first-team unit of Fuller and Facyson at the corner spots, with Bonner and Jarrett at the safety and rover positions, respectively. The backup corners will be Riley and Greene (or Clark), with Frye and either Greene or Clark working as backups at the free safety and rover positions.

Gray has a lot of depth, a lot of talent and a lot of flexibility in the defensive backfield. As he found out last year, he may need it.

2014 SPRING DEPTH CHART (as of April 22)

Left cornerbacks

2 Donovan Riley (5-11, 207, Jr.)

23 Der’Woun Greene (5-10, 189, r-So.)

27 Curtis Williams (5-10, 170, So.)

31 Erikk Banks (5-9, 171, r-Fr.)

Free safeties

8 Detrick Bonner (6-0, 194, r-Sr.)

15 Greg Jones (6-2, 203, r-So.)

21 Johnathan Galante (5-11, 202, So.)


26 Desmond Frye (6-2, 202, Jr.)

24 Anthony Shegog (6-1, 211, r-Fr.)

12 Zach Snell (5-10, 205, r-So.)

14 Zakeel Muhammad (5-10, 170, Fr.)

Right cornerbacks

11 Kendall Fuller (5-11, 195, So.)

19 Chuck Clark (6-0, 208, So.)

29 Terrance Travis (5-10, 179, r-Fr.)