As wide-open offenses continue to dot the landscape of ACC football, defenses will have to continue to adjust as new schemes and talented players test them.
After a great performance against North Carolina last Saturday, Virginia Tech’s defense, and specifically its secondary, will have to be up to the task again when Pittsburgh travels to Blacksburg on Saturday afternoon.
The secondary had to adjust with the insertion of sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams into the starting lineup after senior Bryn Renner wasn’t able to play. But the backfield felt it was ready.
“We expected it because we had heard Renner was in a boot earlier in the week, so we expected him to play,” junior rover Kyshoen Jarrett said about Williams. “We were well prepared.”
Renner's absence might've been a surprise to some, but the coaching staff was ready to adapt to any situation.
"Coach Foster, Coach Wiles, they did a very good job of getting us prepared,” said senior cornerback Kyle Fuller. “We just have to be the guy out there making sure we’re keying our reads.”
A year after getting beat by the Panthers on the road while giving up 283 yards passing and three touchdowns, the Hokies will welcome the Panthers to Lane Stadium for their first matchup as ACC opponents. Though the results weren’t positive a year ago, the secondary sees room to improve.
“It’s all learning tape, learning experience,” Jarrett said. “We had some poor tackling, and just some poor technique fundamentals, especially in the perimeter. So we’ve got to come out this game and make sure we’re sound and those things.”
The Panthers lost 6’6” receiver Mike Shanahan from a year ago, but the duo of redshirt senior Devin Street, who is 6’4”, and true freshman Tyler Boyd, who stands at 6’2”, have eased the burden of replacing Shanahan.
They average 111.2 and 106.2 yards per game respectively, good for the second and third in the conference. The duo has combined to catch seven touchdown passes in just four games as well.
Their impressive start has certainly caught the eye of the Hokies.
“They’re dynamic guys. I’m not sure they’re not the two best we’ve played, going on what I’ve seen,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “They make the tough catch look easy. Great hands, tall guys, good after the catch.”
As the Hokies prepare for the challenge that Boyd, Street and redshirt senior quarterback Tom Savage present on Saturday, they'll be forced to do it without senior cornerback Antone Exum.
Exum was hopeful to return against UNC last Saturday, but he decided that he wasn’t ready on Friday and did not dress for the game.
“Basically I needed more time to fine-tune some things,” Exum said. “I wasn’t at the level I wanted to be at to go out and perform. I could’ve been solid but I want to be able to perform at a very high level and I don’t want to go out there until I can perform at that best corner in the country level. So that’s my goal.”
With Exum out for the Pitt game as well, the duty of covering the tall and talented receivers rests with Fuller, and the pair of standout freshmen in the backfield, Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson.
Short of getting out-jumped by 6’4”, NFL-caliber tight end Eric Ebron and a few throws completed in front of them, Fuller and Facyson performed well against UNC. The challenge Pittsburgh presents is just another measuring stick for the young freshman.
As for the ongoing uncertainty with Exum’s health, the Hokies don’t believe that it creates any problems.
“I feel like he’s a great motivator for the team so it should be all positive,” Jarrett said.
Once again, coaches have to hope he'll be able to make it back for the next game the team plays.
“I think we’ll be looking for him at probably the Duke game, to be honest with you,” Foster said. “He said he was a little stiff today and loosened up. It’s different to get back and do rehab than it is to get back and play the game, with bending your knees, ankles and the change of direction and acceleration.”
The defense has been up to the task of stopping prolific offenses all season, and Saturday’s opponent will be no exception. Just ask the Duke Blue Devils, who saw the Panthers hang 58 points on the board behind a career-high 424 yards and six touchdown throws from Savage.
Though the Panthers like to run the ball, the Hokies secondary needs to slow down the passing attack to give the team a chance to win.