When you have a defense in college football that returns nine starters, you usually try to change as little as possible.
However, if you're Bud Foster, you do what you have to do to get the most out of your players — even if it means rearranging your entire defensive backfield.
The only two players not returning from last year’s team hail from that same secondary — safety Eddie Whitley and cornerback Jayron Hosley — and Foster and defensive backs coach Torrian Gray have tweaked their lineup to accommodate those losses.
Antone Exum has moved from safety to cornerback, Kyle Fuller has finally moved from nickel corner to field corner and Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett have moved from cornerback to safety.
"All it’s doing is adding flexibility to us," Gray said. "I can move Antone back, but we have corners in Kyshoen and those guys. It’s just trying to maximize the personnel, but I feel better now knowing those guys can go in and play safety. Corner is not easy at all, but at least those guys are corners at heart, too.
“I think this is something we are going to want to go ahead and finish with this spring, and be committed to and just evaluate it afterward,” Gray said of the realignment. “I really think we’ll have a chance for this to work out.”
One of the biggest advantages of the shift will be the physicality the team will have out on the perimeter, as Exum and Fuller have both proven to be sure tacklers. They’re both also good-sized for the position, as well.
“I’m real excited,” Exum said. “Kyle played a lot of nickel last year, but there’s more to his game than that. He can go out there and cover with the best of them. I feel like I’ll be able to go out there and cover with the best of them, as well.
“So, you put that together, and then you put how physical both of us of are, me having safety experience, being a bigger guy and Kyle kind of being a big corner and being aggressive with his experience last year at the whip position, I feel like we’ll be in good shape.”
While the unit’s cornerbacks both have plenty of experience playing for Gray, Bonner and Jarrett both just arrived in Blacksburg last year.
Bonner got some action late in the year, primarily against North Carolina and then again during the ACC Championship Game. Jarrett, however, played mostly on special teams, and didn’t see a ton of reps on defense.
But that’s not what has their defensive coordinator worried the most.
“My biggest concern will be, ‘Can those guys tackle consistently at the safety spot?’” Foster said. “I mean, they’re corner guys, but they have good size, they’re not small guys. But, I want to make sure they’re good tacklers. Our safeties, we spill the ball to those guys a lot, and just being consistent with communication, there will be some new things for them.”
Bonner is excited to show he has what it takes.
“It’s a challenge,” he said of being a physical presence. “It’s a great challenge, I’m happy for it, I can’t wait. My main goal right now is to get bigger and stronger over the summer. So far that’s the only thing that’s holding me back from bringing down big backs. My tackling, I feel like, is well. Overall, I just need to get bigger.”
Bonner said he wants to bring his weight up to at least 195 pounds before fall practice. Right now he stands at about 188.
As far as Jarrett is concerned, his biggest issue has been communication. Bonner has at least spent some time playing with the first-team secondary, whereas Jarrett only saw action in late-game, big-margin situations.
“The covering comes naturally,” Jarrett said. “I’ve played corner before. For myself, it’s more the communication. That was an issue with me coming in the first day of spring.
“I’ve learned how to communicate because of my surroundings with Antone Exum, Bonner and Kyle Fuller. With them talking with me it’s kind of helped me talk more. I just want to make sure that presence they had in the fall isn’t taken away.”
This group has already made some progress in the communication department from the start of spring practice.
“It just comes with reps, I feel like,” Bonner said. “Everybody talks. The more they communicate, the better it is. When we communicate as a group, it’s better for us overall. Last week, we were a little slow on the communication. We weren’t doing it well. Now that we are, we’ve made a big improvement.”
The only other area for concern for this unit will be the depth behind it.
With the transfer of James Farrow, the only scholarship players behind Exum and Fuller at cornerback will be freshmen.
One of them is already here, as Donaldven Manning was one of three early enrollees for Tech’s program who came in January.
While a bit undersized, Manning has a good amount of raw talent, which should help him progress into another premiere Hokie cornerback.
“From a technique fundamental standpoint, I expect him to get better,” Gray said of his unit’s newest member. “Physically, he’s only going to get so big at this point in time in his career, but if he can show physically that he can get down the techniques and do those types of things, I’ll feel encouraged because he’s going to be 15 practices better starting fall.”
Manning said he’s already learned a lot from his fellow corners.
“Pointers that they give me, they just tell me don’t back down from nothing, keep going hard and make sure you know your assignment,” he said. “If you know your assignment, then you can always beat them to the play and be able to make a play on the ball.”