Freshman Dorian Strong Proving to be Another Diamond in the Rough for Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech football has sprinted out to a 3-1 start to the 2020 campaign despite a COVID-riddled defense and starting quarterback Hendon Hooker beginning the year in quarantine.
The rushing offense has undoubtedly been the story for Virginia Tech through four games, as running back Khalil Herbert has guided Tech to the nation's second-ranked running unit. At 312.0 yards per game, the Virginia Tech rushing offense ranks second in the country, only to Air Force, an option offense averaging 369.0 yards per game on the ground in 2020.
We've reached the point in the season where college football fans and analysts know that Virginia Tech is going to score more than enough points to win a fair share of the games on the schedule. Instead, the real questions about Tech's ceiling reside on the play of the defense - which is something that fans in Blacksburg aren't used to following the Hall of Fame career of 30-year defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
Year one in Blacksburg for Justin Hamilton, the team's new defensive coordinator, has gotten off to a bit of a bumpy start. As mentioned, the jury is still out on the defense, as the Hokies are just beginning to get healthy on that side of the football from COVID-induced infections and contact-tracing quarantine measures.
The secondary has been the unit hit the hardest from a depth standpoint, as Tech has started 11 different players at the safety and cornerback spots this year through four games - something that is almost unheard of in a normal college football season.
As such, true freshman defensive back Dorian Strong has been thrust into a significant role at cornerback. The coaching staff believed that Strong had an opportunity to be very good for the Hokies as his career unfolded. However, I'm not sure the coaching staff even expected Strong to breakout the way that he has. He's not just "pretty good for a freshman," he's been one of the defense's best players through four games.
Let's take a look at the North Carolina game, for example. The 'Heels were marching up-and-down the field on the Virginia Tech defense for the entirety of the contest, but Strong was one of the few players in the secondary who played well in spite of the defense playing its worst game of the season. Despite the 650+ yards and 56 points allowed, Strong held his own in coverage for most of the afternoon.
Here's one great example of a high-IQ play that Strong made on third down in the second quarter against the Tar Heels. This was a play that North Carolina wide receiver Dyami Brown looked like he made to easily pick up the first down. Strong ripped at the ball as Brown was bringing the pass in, and knocked it away for a pass breakup.
Great play by true freshman CB Dorian Strong breaking up the catch on 3rd down....hidden💎 pic.twitter.com/xNz7cSP7S5— BFISH (@BFISH804) October 14, 2020
How about against Boston College?
It was a much better game for most players on the Tech defense against the Eagles last Saturday, and Strong continued his reliable play in coverage.
Much has been made about Virginia Tech's switch to more zone coverage looks defensively under Justin Hamilton, a notable change from the "man free" defense that Bud Foster ran throughout his tenure in Blacksburg. Frequently, Foster's defense would rely on pressure from the front seven to assist the back-end of the defense in man coverage. This worked more often than it didn't, but in games where Tech's pass rush couldn't get home to the quarterback, the defensive backs were left on an island one-on-one against some of the conference's best receivers - a task that made life difficult at times when the Hokies' secondary didn't have its best game.
Hamilton made an adjustment at halftime against Boston College to play a bit more man coverage against the Eagles' skill position players. After an up-and-down first half for the Virginia Tech defense, the adjustment seemed to work, with the Hokies able to make more stops defensively in the second half.
Back to Strong, who made an unbelievable play in man coverage early in the second half on Boston College's top receiver Zay Flowers. If Strong doesn't break this pass up, this throw goes for six:
But it's not just the instincts in coverage that have made Strong so reliable for Virginia Tech at defensive back through four games this season. It's also his awareness when tackling.
In the first clip of the game against North Carolina, we showed Strong's ability to instinctively rip away at the football in coverage, even when the pass looks like it has already been completed.
This next clip is another play where Strong rallies to the football, and makes a heads-up play when the ball is stripped from the Boston College ball-carrier by defensive back Chamarri Conner (who has been the defense's best player all year). Strong's knack of being consistently around the football both against the run, and more traditionally, against the pass, has benefited both Strong and the Hokies' defense. This was one of five Boston College turnovers last Saturday night, with the credit going to Strong on the recovery:
The turnover woes continue for BC.— Andy Backstrom (@andybackstrom) October 18, 2020
Chamarri Conner rips the ball loose from Travis Levy, and Dorian Strong recovers for the Hokies' fourth takeaway of the night.
BC has totaled 277 yards of offense tonight, but it's shoot itself in the foot with turnovers. pic.twitter.com/wbKlV8NMMe
In the absence of Jermaine Waller, who has missed three of Tech's first four games due to injury, and Caleb Farley, who opted out due to COVID concerns prior to the season, Tech was looking for instant-impact playmakers in the secondary even before the COVID-related issues ravaged the roster.
Strong, a three-star defensive back that was a member of Virginia Tech's much-maligned 2020 recruiting class, has been one of the team's biggest surprises. Ironically, Strong has paired up with classmate Keonta Jenkins, who when healthy, has also played well for the Hokies in the secondary in his first year in Blacksburg.
Virginia Tech's 2020 recruiting class deserved the scrutiny it received - it was the program's worst recruiting class in 20 years on paper, coming in last in the ACC rankings and 76th-nationally, which was the worst mark in the Power Five.
The Hokies need to recruit better - there's no question about it. The players know, the coaching staff knows, and the recent recruiting hires of Alex White, Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, and Corey Fuller suggest that the administration knows as well.
However, to close the perceived gap that resides between Tech's 2020 recruiting class and those of its peers in the ACC, Virginia Tech will need to have some members of that class outperform their star rankings.
Dorian Strong has emerged as one of those players - becoming the latest diamond in the rough find for the Virginia Tech coaching staff, and one of the team's best secondary players to boot.
If his high-caliber play, and the play of others in his class continues to take shape, Virginia Tech may be the surprise of the ACC for years to come.