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.