Spring Football 2001: The Defensive Backs
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 7/6/01
Steady, productive Cory Bird may be gone, but everyone else is back in Virginia Tech's defensive backfield. And the cornerbacks in particular are ready to rock. Among the four positions in the defensive backfield, six players took more than 150 snaps from scrimmage in the 2000 season, and of those six, Bird is the only one who isn't returning in 2001.
Unfortunately for the Hokies, Bird's backups last year only took 11 snaps from scrimmage, so the search for a new Rover is on. But the good news is that the cornerbacks go four or five deep for the Hokies, and the free safety position is in good shape, too.
Virginia Tech's defensive backs are the most misunderstood, most maligned group on the team, particularly the cornerbacks. Tech's cornerbacks are trained to lay off receivers most of the time, let them catch the short routes, make the tackle, and prevent deep receptions at all costs. These instructions change only when a cornerback is either unusually talented (Ronyell Whitaker), loaded with experience (Loren Johnson as a senior), or both (Ike Charlton as a junior). The cornerbacks will also take more chances, and come out looking better, when they're fronted by great defensive lines like the 1995 and 1999 Hokie DL's.
The problem for the Tech cornerbacks is that playing soft and allowing so many receptions makes them look bad. If Larry Austin lets an opposing receiver catch four straight 8-yard passes, and on the fifth play Nathaniel Adibi sacks the quarterback and causes him to fumble the ball away, then Austin has done his job and done it well -- he contained the receiver and prevented the long gainers until Virginia Tech's attack defense forced the opposing quarterback into a costly mistake.
But very few fans know that Austin has done his job right in that instance, and instead, they leave the stadium saying to each other, "Geez, what's up with Austin? He sucks!"
As for the free safety, he is often the last guy chasing an opposing receiver into the end zone, and the fans lock onto his number and say, "(Player X) got beat on that one," when it may have actually been a blown assignment or poor positioning by a cornerback or Rover that caused the receiver to spring free in the first place.
Only the Rovers get to have fun all the time. They get to fill the hole on running plays and pop running backs, they blitz the quarterback off the corner, and they play pass defense here and there. They're rarely criticized, because their position is so complex and such a mystery to the average fan (me included) that any mistake they make looks to the untrained observer like a blown play by someone else. Lucky them.
Each of the four defensive back positions brings with it great responsibility and great pressure, for a mistake in the defensive backfield often equals a touchdown for the opposition. The pressure to avoid mistakes is greater on the defensive backs than it is for any other player on the football team, except perhaps for the quarterback (and, depending upon the situation, the placekicker).
This article presents a snapshot of Virginia Tech's defensive backfield taken at the end of spring practice. We will delve into practice reports, depth charts, and notes from the Hokies' 2001 spring football practices to find out what the defensive backfield looks like headed into fall practice.
Here is a look at the defensive backs, position-by-position. Height and weight figures are from Gentry's Iron Palace on BeamerBall.com, and the class given for a player is the class they will be during the 2001 football season.
The Depth Chart
The latest depth chart on BeamerBall.com is dated 5-15-01 and gives the following information for the defensive backs.
This depth chart represents two major changes from the 2000 season: Kevin McCadam has been moved from backup free safety to starting Rover, and Billy Hardee ... well, I think Rover is a new position for him, and if so, the much traveled Hardee has now "hit for the cycle" among Tech's four DB positions.
Most of the DB's stayed healthy this spring and got a lot of work at their positions, with Willie Pile being the one exception. Pile missed most or all of spring practice.
The coaches' comments about the defensive backs that were made during the course of spring practice were uniformly positive. But in searching through BeamerBall.com's archives, the defensive backs were rarely discussed in great detail, primarily because DB Coach Lorenzo "Whammy" Ward was only interviewed once. Ward praised the pass coverage of his cornerbacks but said they needed to get more physical in stopping the run, and that they needed to take better attack angles to the ball in the running game.
Then again, you would expect a guy named "Whammy," who was known as a hard hitter, to say something like that.
Nothing about Ronyell Whitaker (#2) is boring. He was second-team All-Big East, played more snaps (671) in 2000 than anyone else on Tech's defense, intercepted five passes, returned punts ... and never stopped talking. Whitaker's trash-talking, competitive nature led to some penalties and criticism from fans, but shrewd football observers looked beyond the flapping jaw and saw a great cover cornerback coming into his own.
Whitaker had a great season covering receivers in 2000, which ended with him gloving up Clemson's leading receiver, Rod Gardner, in the Gator Bowl. What is scary for Tech opponents is that Bud Foster told BeamerBall.com on April 2nd, "Ronyell Whitaker is taking his game to another level this spring."
It's hard to believe that Whitaker is only going to be a junior this coming season. Barring injury, he is poised to have one of the best seasons ever for a Virginia Tech cornerback, and his play will be greatly enhanced if the Tech defensive line steps up in 2001. If his academics are in-line for him to graduate in spring of 2002 (and even if they're not), the Hokies could lose Whitaker to the NFL draft in April of 2002. Only time will tell.
One reason Whitaker was forced to play so many snaps was that his backup, Garnell Wilds (#17), suffered a season-ending knee injury against Temple last year. It's still hard to get a read on Wilds at this point in his career -- the coaches rarely talk about him -- so it will be interesting to see how the next season goes for him.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the defense in 2000 was Willie Pile (#35), who led the team with six interceptions and generally played very well for a first-year starter. An "Inside the Numbers" article in TSL Extra #5 calculated defensive player performance by awarding points for defensive plays such as tackles, interceptions, and sacks, and Pile finished #2 behind Ben Taylor in total defensive points last season.
And when a player's points were divided by their number of plays on the field, creating a defensive points-per-play measure of performance, Pile topped all Hokie defenders. But this surprises no one at TechSideline.com, where Pile was named the Sleeper of the 1998 recruiting class (I just had to slip that in there).
With McCadam being moved to Rover, the backup free safety duties fall on redshirt freshman Vincent Fuller (#8) who has pleased the Tech coaching staff with his showing in practice and scrimmages. Bud Foster in particular seems sold on Fuller -- a review of Foster's comments to BeamerBall.com over the last few months about Fuller reveal a coach who likes what he sees:
If Willie Pile hadn't had such a good year last year, he might need to be worried about Fuller's emergence. As it is, the Hokies appear to be in good shape at safety, and Fuller will probably see plenty of playing time this fall.
Rover will be the most interesting position to watch in the defensive backfield this fall. Gone is the steady, dependable Cory Bird, who was roundly hailed as Tech's most underrated defender and a key to the defense. In the wake of his departure, the coaches did something unexpected: they moved backup free safety Kevin McCadam (#5) into the Rover position.
In more than one respect, the move makes sense. McCadam is taller than Bird (6-2 versus 5-10), but other than that, the two players are a lot alike. They have similar builds, weigh almost the same (Bird was 218, McCadam is 219), and have 40 times that are nearly equal (Bird was clocked at 4.42 before the 2000 season, McCadam turned in a 4.43 this spring).
McCadam is a big-hitting transfer from Grossmont (CA) College who only has one year of eligibility left. He struggled at times in the free safety position last year, missing assignments and tackles, but he also showed flashes of great football ability. Like Bird, he is an excellent athlete.
The coaches feel good enough about the free safety position to move McCadam to Rover, and by all accounts, the move was successful. All during spring practice, the coaches spoke highly of how well McCadam was adapting to the Rover position. At various times, he received praise on BeamerBall.com from Jim Cavanaugh ("He's going to be a good Rover ... he's really picking things up") and Bud Foster ("At Rover, Kevin McCadam was super for us. He's at a new position but really adjusted well"), and in scrimmage #2, he returned an interception 80 yards for a score.
Behind McCadam is the versatile Billy Hardee (#25), who appeared on the scene in the spring of 2000. The coaches played Hardee at free safety and at cornerback last season, and with the injuries at corner, he finished the season #1 on the depth chart at the boundary cornerback position, ahead of Eric Green. Hardee took 186 snaps from scrimmage, despite battling a groin injury for most of the season. Hardee can step in at any position during the upcoming season, if need be, including being the fifth cornerback.
Hardee had a very quiet spring, and it's worth noting that although he is listed as the #2 Rover, he actually spent spring practice at the first-string safety position, filling in while Pile recovered from his injury.
Michael Crawford (#21) served as McCadam's backup at Rover during the spring. The coaches had very little to say about him, with Jim Cavanaugh saying on one occasion that Crawford and the other "young guys" -- Deon Provitt, Chris Krebs, and Brandon Manning -- were "all over the place." But he also praised Crawford after one practice for having a good day. But the fact that Hardee, with zero experience at the Rover position, was placed on the depth chart in front of Crawford tells you that the coaches have more faith in Hardee to play the position right now and that Crawford needs more work.
And via email comes this little tidbit: the coaches think incoming recruit DeAngelo Hall has the physical build of a Rover, and they may give him a look there this fall.
After receiving praise during the spring of 2000 and the preseason last year, and after running an incredible 4.26 forty last fall, Larry Austin (#24) missed most of 2000 with a torn ACL. He was sorely missed against the Miami Hurricanes in particular, but his absence did lead to true freshman Eric Green (#1) getting nearly 400 snaps from center during the 2000 season. Green's baptism by fire, an experience that was painful at times, will serve him well in the future.
The big question for Austin is how fast he will be upon returning from his knee injury. Although he practiced full-speed the entire spring, he was not timed in the 40 yard dash, so we won't know until preseason testing how his speed is.
The coaches had very little to say about Austin and Green during spring football, although at one point, Lorenzo Ward did praise the pass-coverage abilities of Austin, Green, and Ronyell Whitaker as a group.