The Virginia Tech football program has produced a lot of great defensive backs over the years, and this season is no exception, as the school currently boasts the best secondary in the nation.
Tech earned a reputation as “DB U” long ago thanks to players like DeAngelo Hall, Kam Chancellor and Brandon Flowers.
But some new faces have helped the Hokies dominate in the secondary at a level they haven’t achieved since 2010.
Three years ago, Tech finished second in the country in interceptions with 23.
Now, the Hokies are tied for the nationwide lead with 11 and are allowing the fifth fewest passing yards per game to go along with it.
It’s all been thanks to a mix of talent and depth at both cornerback and safety, but here’s the scariest part for opposing offenses: it might all get better very soon.
Every conversation about Tech’s secondary has to begin with freshman cornerback Brandon Facyson.
Facyson earned high praise from the coaches in spring practice, but no one expected he’d emerge as the premier ballhawk on Bud Foster’s defense.
He’s currently tied for the country-wide lead in interceptions with four, and his imposing 6’2” frame combined with his speed has made him a nightmare for opposing receivers.
His quickness and vision allow him to make incredible plays on the ball that receivers just don’t see coming, like this one against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets:
He’s mostly played field corner so far, but he moved to boundary corner against the Jackets, and his physicality really helped him on throws to the sidelines.
However, he only saw time there because another star player switched positions.
Fuller has been a huge part of Tech’s defense ever since he stepped on the field, and that hasn’t changed this year.
He absolutely shut down the Alabama Crimson Tide’s Amari Cooper, holding him to just four receptions, and he’s been a monster defending the run as well.
Foster moved him to Whip linebacker against Georgia Tech, as he’s done for the last two years, and Fuller came up big once again.
He forced a fumble and made two tackles for loss to help hold the Jackets to just 129 yards on the ground.
He experiences the occasional lapse in coverage, but he’s already recorded an interception and seven pass break ups on the year.
With Facyson playing so well and starting Whip linebacker Josh Trimble’s health in question, it could make sense to keep Fuller at Whip to continue to take advantage of his run stopping ability.
Wherever he plays, Fuller is a crucial piece of the dominant unit.
While Tech has had plenty of cornerback depth the last two years, the one thing it’s truly lacked is a talented safety.
Junior Rover Kyshoen Jarrett has changed all that this year.
Jarrett’s regularly been called on to play close to the line in run support, and he has made 26 tackles while doing so.
But whenever he’s been challenged in coverage, he’s responded with equally strong decision-making.
He’s the most physical player in the defensive backfield Tech’s had on the field since Chancellor, as demonstrated by this game-saving interception against the Marshall Thundering Herd:
But he’s not even the scariest part of the secondary for opposing quarterbacks—that would be the unit’s future.
Antone Exum and Kendall Fuller
Tech’s defense has been downright incredible without Exum, and that should terrify the rest of the ACC.
Exum nabbed five interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles in 2012, as he settled into his first season playing cornerback.
He’s missed the first five games of the season while recovering from his ACL injury, but now, he’s ready to return for the team’s upcoming game against the North Carolina Tar Heels.
According to the coaching staff, that means he’ll replace Facyson on the depth chart, a truly mind-boggling possibility.
Freshman Kendall Fuller is also in the mix for playing time at the position, after largely working at nickel back so far.
He’s also been excellent, recording two interceptions, and he too could lose playing time while the depth chart is re-shuffled.
It all remains to be seen how healthy Exum turns out to be.
If Tech truly can bring the nation’s leader in interceptions off the bench, then that will give offensive coordinators fits.
Free safety Detrick Bonner has been the lone “weak spot” in the secondary, and many, including the Roanoke Times’ Andy Bitter, have speculated that Exum could move back to his old position to replace him.
With free safety Detrick Bonner's struggles in pass coverage lately, could Exum return to his old position to give the Hokies help? Exum began his career as a safety/rover but made the full-time switch to cornerback before last season. However it plays out, Virginia Tech knows it has viable options in Facyson and Kendall Fuller. It's a good problem to have.
However, coaches insist that Exum will be playing cornerback when he returns.
Besides, it’s not like Bonner’s been terrible: his two interceptions attest to that fact.
Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee picked on Bonner for some long completions, but the safety was largely forced to play man-to-man coverage in those situations, something he’s not used to.
If Foster can rotate Kendall and Facyson in at the Nickel frequently enough, the defense can avoid leaving Bonner on an island and mask this weakness.
What it all adds up to is that Exum won’t be asked to do too much upon his return, and he can ease his way back into a truly deep pool of players.
This unit will be good for a long time to come, considering that Facyson, Jarrett, Bonner and the younger Fuller all return next year.
But in the meantime, this unit will be a huge headache for passers to deal with this season.
After a shaky start, Tech is starting to look like it can contend for the ACC Coastal division title, and the secondary is the biggest reason why.