The Virginia Tech Hokies received some tough news last week when rising sophomore defensive back Michael Cole was forced to give up football after a November neck injury.
Cole wasn't a star yet, but once defensive coordinator Bud Foster gave Cole significant playing time in 2012, the defense got better. Cole, a safety, even started four games as the team's nickelback. He played in 10 games and finished with 43 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Cole was a physical player with very good athletic ability. His biggest attribute, however, was his advanced knowledge of the defense. Foster and Cole's teammates trusted Cole with his assignments which allowed the defense more flexibility to be aggressive.
The Hokies' secondary had very little depth in 2012—Cole's departure, along with senior cornerback Antone Exum's knee injury, has increased the pressure on an impressive group of young players.
Fortunately for the Hokies, they just signed one of the more impressive recruiting classes in recent school history. Six of those signees are expected to play defensive back.
Here are three players who could help fill Cole's shoes early in 2013.
Kendall Fuller was the Hokies' top recruit in 2013 and one of the top players in the entire nation. Players with Fuller's talent generally tend to see the field as true freshmen. The Hokies' lack of depth in the secondary will certainly allow Fuller to see significant playing time come the fall.
Antone Exum may or may not be ready for the season opener, which could allow Fuller a chance to start opposite his older brother Kyle at corner. If Exum does return in time for the game against Alabama, Fuller will undoubtedly get some snaps at the nickelback position.
Fuller is an excellent athlete and even though he lacks college experience, he has the skills to step in and play immediately.
Holland Fisher, like Fuller, will be a true freshman in the fall. However, unlike Fuller, Fisher is a safety and brings the kind of physicality the Hokies love from their defensive backs.
Fisher could player either safety position, but the Hokies return both starters at those positions. Cole's departure does open up an opportunity for Fisher to showcase his skills.
Fisher is big, fast and, in high school, showed a knack for being around the football. He may be best suited to play the nickelback role as a freshman because he won't be expected to have a full grasp of the defensive scheme early in the season.
Fisher could actually be an ideal nickelback in 2013 as he has the speed to cover and the ability to be an extra defender in the box against run-heavy teams like Alabama.
Desmond Frye is a talented sophomore who played in all 13 games in 2012. While most of his time was on special teams, Frye did play more defense as the season progressed.
At 6'2", 185 pounds, Frye has good size to go along with impressive speed. He played as a true freshman last season and another offseason in the Hokies' weight room will benefit Frye.
He projects as more of a free safety and despite limited reps on defense in 2012, Frye never seemed lost. His physical ability is there and if he has a good grasp of the defense, he could see a significant increase in his role.
Frye's experience at safety, in addition to being good in coverage, could give him the edge to replace Cole.