Given the youth at his position and the struggles on Virginia Tech’s defense, Brian Mitchell easily could be forgiven if the 2018 football season marked the longest of his 24-year coaching career.
On the contrary, though, according to Tech’s cornerbacks coach.
“Probably the most fun I’ve had coaching in a long time,” Mitchell said.
Starting cornerbacks Caleb Farley and Bryce Watts, along with top reserve, Jovonn Quillen, took their lumps at times in 2018. Sometimes, they gave up big plays in the passing game, while at others, they missed tackles in the running game.
But that was to be expected of first-time starters. Farley, a redshirt freshman last fall, never had played cornerback before, while Watts, a sophomore, saw little action as a true freshman in 2017. Most of Quillen’s reps before last season came on special teams.
All of them, however, entered this spring practice bigger and stronger, and more importantly, more experienced. It shows, too, as the Hokies reached the halfway point of spring practice.
“It’s frustrating that you don’t get the results,” Mitchell said of his group’s performance last fall. “But you can see guys getting over the hump a little bit. Now, it’s paying dividends this spring. Now, I’m not worried as much about coaching scheme as teaching the fundamentals and technique. Each one, individually, is getting specific attention to what they need. When you jump into it as a whole, you don’t get to spend as much one-on-one time with those guys during the season.”
A point of emphasis this spring for all of Tech’s defensive backs has been tackling. The defensive backs gave up too many big plays because of missed tackles last fall – in fact, Tech’s staff counted nearly 30 explosive plays that came about as a result of missed tackles in the secondary.
So, the group dedicated a period of practice pretty much every practice toward tackling. They don’t tackle dummies, though. They tackle Tech’s running backs and receivers, so Watts, Farley and the rest of the cornerbacks get better by taking on the likes of 220-pound Jalen Holston and 215-pound Caleb Steward.
“That’s one of the areas that I wanted to focus in on,” Mitchell said of tackling. “Not only just the football IQ or the eye progression, [but] we needed to be a more physical unit … Every day we’ve had a practice, we’ve focused in on tackling. That’s one of the things that we’re going to get better at. If we only improve one percent, we’re going to be better.”
Mitchell also likes the work done by his redshirt freshmen – Jermaine Waller and Armani Chatman. Both show an ability to make plays.
In addition, Mitchell expects to get Jeremy Webb back in the fall. Webb, a junior college transfer, missed last season with a torn Achilles and then tore the other Achilles in mid-December, but he continues to rehab, and Mitchell loves his leadership in the meeting room. He feels confident in Mitchell’s progress and motivation to get back.
“There’s going to be a time when we see a long 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4 guy that’s athletic and is going to help us win football games,” he said. ”
Other notes from Wednesday’s news conference:
• Tech head coach Justin Fuente said that Tré Turner is one of many guys who continue to be looked at as a candidate for the punt returner job. He joked that the list is long and getting longer.
“Well, I would say he and a long list of other people may return punts,” he said. “Short of taking out an advertisement in the school paper and asking frat guys to catch punts, we are having open tryouts.”
• Tech’s staff continues to push the defensive ends, and specifically, redshirt sophomores TyJuan Garbutt, Zion Debose and Nathan Proctor. Emmanuel Belmar basically anchors one end position, but with Houshun Gaines out with a knee injury, the Hokies need for other ends to emerge. The trio appears to be getting the message and continues to play well.
“This is going to be Year 3, so we’re not freshmen no more,” Garbutt said. “We’re not redshirt freshmen, or freshmen on the field, so we’ve got to really step up and make a big impact.”
• There were few details available about Saturday’s scrimmage, but linebacker Dax Hollifield raved about the play of a redshirt freshman Gideon Driscoll, a local kid who played at Blacksburg High School. The 6-foot-5, 270-pounder apparently wreaked havoc.
“Yeah, he was killing it,” Hollifield said. “He had I don’t know how many tackles for a loss. He’s a very slippery dude. He was getting around the blocks and making plays. I was turnt up for him.”
• Speaking of Hollifield, he feels that he is playing much faster this spring because of the work that he put into the strength and conditioning program over the winter. The sophomore wanted to get his weight down and drop body fat, while also getting stronger.
“I was very, very heavy [last season], and it was affecting my speed a lot,” Hollifield said. “I came in at probably 250, and I knew I needed to get down because Coach [Bud] Foster told me to get down. I was trying to get that off, but when fall came and the season, it was really hard to work out and get stronger and leaner while you’re playing football. After the break in January, my goal was to get very lean and try to play between 230-235 (pounds) and lower my body fat. I feel a lot better. I feel a lot faster and a lot stronger, and I feel like I’m a better football player because of that.”
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