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For Virginia Tech’s secondary, Sept. 3rd's game with North Carolina is more than just a chance to start the season on a winning note.
It’s also a chance to shut down one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.
North Carolina’s Sam Howell is really good, but you didn’t need me to tell you that. His 68-14 career touchdown-to-interception ratio is also really good, but you probably didn't need me to tell you that either.
What might be of interest, however, is that while Howell is a great college quarterback, the weapons around him aren’t what they used to be.
Of Carolina’s top five receivers from 2020, four of them are no longer suiting up for the Tar Heels. Carolina’s leading returning receiver, Khafre Brown, caught just 15 passes last season. Beau Corrales and Garrett Walston are also back, but neither played a large role in the Tar Heel offense in 2020.
So, while Sam Howell’s mettle has been tested, those around him are far less proven. Thus, Virginia Tech’s defensive backs are presented with maybe their best opportunity of the season.
The talent is there, at least in the starting lineup. Jermaine Waller seems to have put his injury issues behind him and will anchor the unit opposite of 2020 Freshman All-American Dorian Strong. Waller was one of the best cornerbacks in the country two years ago and pairing him with a seasoned Strong gives the Hokies one of the better cornerback duos in the nation.
Three-year starter and regular playmaker Chamarri Conner is back at nickel, hoping to return to his 2019 level of production. Conner’s 10 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2019 were among the team’s best, and with a full year in Justin Hamilton’s system, Conner should have the opportunity for the best season of his career in 2021.
Tae Daley transferred in from Vanderbilt, and Devon Hunter is ready to write a comeback story tailor-made for Hollywood. Keonta Jenkins returns as well, giving the Hokies three legitimate options at safety.
There is some depth here, too. Veterans Brion Murray and Armani Chatman are back, and freshman DJ Harvey is on campus to solidify the cornerback position. JR Walker, Ny’Quee Hawkins and Jalen Stroman give the Hokies options at safety and nickelback.
There’s no reason to think that the Hokies’ starting secondary won’t have the advantage at every skill position while their defense is on the field vs. North Carolina. At worst, it’ll be a push. Tech should be able to hold their own.
I am by no means predicting a Virginia Tech win on Sept. 3; we’ve seen how Justin Fuente’s Hokies have handled the bright lights and big stages. But North Carolina’s biggest perceived strength - the passing game - might not be as big a strength as some might be thinking vs. the Hokies. Tech matches up well with the Tar Heels at the key positions.
Should the Hokies’ defensive backs have a good game against Carolina, it could propel the unit for the rest of the season. A lot will depend on Waller’s health, but the Virginia Tech secondary generates more optimism than any other unit on the team.
Next Friday night may show just how much of that optimism is warranted.