Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sugar Bowl Preview: Virginia Tech Defensive Secondary

Guest poster Ryan provides his fourth Virginia Tech Hokies position group review.

Previously: Offensive backfield; Receiving corps; Offensive Line; Defensive Front Seven.

Virginia Tech Secondary
Year after year, Virginia Tech’s secondary is arguably the team’s strongest position group and this season has been no exception. Despite allowing an average of 206 passing yards per game, which is fifth in the ACC, the unit leads the conference in opponent completion percentage rate at 50%. But the main indicator for how Foster’s unit is playing is the number of interceptions they produce. The Hokies as a team are second in the conference with 15 with defensive back starters recording nine of those 15 picks. Since Denard Robinson has demonstrated a predilection for throwing interceptions, recording 14 picks on the season, the Hokies will rely on their front seven pressure to set up opportunities for their secondary to make plays and record turnovers.
Cornerbacks – Jayron Hosley #20; Cris Hill #9; Detrick Bonner #8
Since 2000, 13 players from the Hokies’ secondary have been drafted into the NFL and junior Jayron Hosley will undoubtedly be number 14 after either this season or next (though the former is more likely). In 2010, Hosley’s first year as a starter, he recorded nine interceptions and was a first team All-American. This year, Hosley’s insane interception rate has dropped off, but he still recorded a team-leading three picks while racking up the same number of pass break-ups that he did last season with significantly more tackles. Standing at 5-10, 171 lbs., Hosley is by far the Hokies’ most feared defensive back. Even so, teams have been able to get behind him in coverage for big plays in the passing game, especially after he suffered a hamstring injury in week seven against Miami. That said, any quarterback who consistently throws his way is playing with fire as explained by ESPN’s Sports Science.

Though Kyle Fuller could start opposite of Hosley instead of at the whip linebacker position, it is expected that redshirt senior Cris Hill will be the starter at the second cornerback spot. Hill was a highly-touted prospect coming out of high school, but has been unable to see the field as a starter on defense because of an inability to grasp the mental side of the game and learn Foster’s defense. Hill came into the season as the Hokies’ nickel corner and since his team-leading seven tackle performance against ECU in week two, Hokie fans, Foster and even Hill himself have seen glimpses of what he can accomplish on the field. Listed at 5-11, 180 lbs., Hill possesses the most straight-line speed of all the players in the Hokies’ secondary and because most of his career plays have come on special teams, Hill is not afraid to hit players and play physical. Hill has started five games this season and has recorded 33 total tackles, including one for loss, with an interception.
If Fuller does end up starting at cornerback instead of whip, then redshirt freshman cornerback Detrick Bonner will start at whip. If Fuller ends up at whip as is projected, then Bonner will serve as the Hokies’ nickel cornerback. Regardless, expect to see a lot of the 6-0, 189 lbs. athlete. Though he has played as either the nickel or the whip in most games, the majority of his defensive snaps have actually been on the perimeter in relief of an injured Hosley in the Wake Forest, Boston College, and ACC Championship games. Wherever and whenever he plays, Bonner has been very solid in both the run game and the passing game, especially in relief of Hosley considering opponents have targeted him in those instances on almost every passing play. Though he does not have the greatest straight-line speed, his frame and technique can make it hard for opposing quarterbacks to find windows to throw into around Bonner. For the season, Bonner has recorded 26 total tackles with 3.5 for loss, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Safeties – Eddie Whitley #15; Antone Exum #1
Senior Eddie Whitley is the Hokies’ starter at rover (aka strong safety). Whitley has alternated between rover and free safety over his career, but Foster decided to make him the primary rover before this season because of his more aggressive instincts and ability to play the ball carrier. Whitley is second on the team in both total tackles (78) and interceptions (two). He also has eight pass break-ups and deflections with a forced fumble and a tackle for loss. An example of Whitley’s nose for the football comes from last season’s game against UNC where he recorded this great interception in the end zone.

Though both Hosley and Whitley have well-deserved reputations for making plays, very quietly first-year starting free safety Antone Exum has been the Hokies’ primary playmaker in the secondary this season. Exum, a 6-0, 220 lbs. redshirt sophomore, leads the team with 85 total tackles and two forced fumbles. He also leads the secondary with 21 pass break-ups and deflections and 4.5 tackles for loss. He also has recorded an interception and a fumble recovery. In other words, Exum statistically is having arguably the best season of anybody on the team and nobody seems to be talking about it. Perhaps more people will after this game since he will arguably play the biggest role in preventing Denard Robinson and Michigan’s offense from making huge plays.

The final installment of this series of Virginia Tech position group previews will feature the Hokies’ specialists.

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