2020-21 Football Roster Breakdown: The State of Virginia Tech’s Safeties

Stephen Newman

The Hokies appear to have a lot of certainty at safety, yet they are also somewhat in transition there. While not a substantial amount of irreplaceable production has been lost this offseason, three-year starter Reggie Floyd has graduated, and one of their key contributors off the bench (Khalil Ladler) has transferred.

Even so, Virginia Tech has plenty of talent at safety – even if outlets like Pick Six Previews don’t think so. Hokie fans might even see the group make a bigger impact than it has in the past couple years.

Justin Hamilton

There’s nothing new here per se because Hamilton was in charge of the safeties last year. However, he will also be the defensive coordinator this season. Since he has specialized with safeties and he now has more authority, it would seem logical for him to want to feature them in more unique ways.

Hamilton has already suggested that his safeties might line up deeper than they did under Bud Foster, but the changes likely won’t stop there. It seems reasonable to expect more overall activity from the safeties this year, particularly when it comes to alignment variation. His proclamation may have also been a bluff, to some extent.

Hamilton will have a very intriguing cast of characters to work with, from grizzled veterans to high-upside athletes in elevated roles.

The Starters 

Divine Deablo: In terms of playing experience, the 6-foot-3, 223-pound fifth-year senior is by far the veteran of the safety group. He’s been a contributor on defense since his injury-shortened true sophomore season, and he’s entering what should be his third season as an every-down player. Diablo split time between whip and free safety in 2018 before making the full-time transition to free safety. As the last line of defense in 2019, he recorded 84 tackles – the second-highest total of any Tech player – as well as a scoop-and-score touchdown. 

The big question this year – aside from whether he can take the next step as a player – is whether he’ll be asked to line up deeper. If Hamilton stays true to his word, then Deablo likely will back up more frequently, but he’s arguably too big to do so on a regular basis. Then again, if he can survive as a true centerfielder, it would likely do wonders for his draft stock – since it would mean he could succeed deep or up in the box.

Chamarri Conner: As a true sophomore Conner took many people by surprise when he supplanted Ladler for the starting job at nickel – the position previously known as whip. The 6-foot, 211-pound thumper arguably had the best season of any Hokie safety in 2019 with 68 tackles (10 for loss) and a team-high 5.5 sacks.

It’s not a sure thing that Conner will remain the nickel – or that the nickel position will even exist in its current form going forward. He’s lighter on his feet than Tech’s other top safeties, which might be beneficial at a deeper position on the field. Regardless, he showed some star-like qualities last season, and if he can build off that performance, he easily has All-ACC upside. 

Devon Hunter: The time has finally come for the former 5-star from Chesapeake, Virginia to take over as a starter for the Hokies. As he’s grown into a 6-foot, 227-pound frame, he’s been rotated from rover to whip and then back to rover, but sparingly gotten onto the field – although he had a stellar first half performance against North Carolina last season.

Truthfully, there’s a chance that he’ll be moving positions again because playing two deep safeties that weigh over 220 pounds is asking for trouble. Floyd fit that description but always struggled in coverage, and Hunter is even bigger than Floyd. If the Hokies play a slot cornerback like Brion Murray more frequently and allow one safety to play as a full-time small linebacker, Hunter could thrive in that role, although so could Conner.

Role Players

Tyree Rodgers: Playing time has been generally hard to come by for Rodgers. He made 18 tackles and the lone three starts of his career in 2018, but has only had three tackles in the rest of time in Blacksburg. The upcoming season could be different, though.

Rodgers is much lighter on his feet (180 pounds) than the rest of the Hokies’ safeties, and that could make the fifth-year senior the leading candidate to spell Deablo at free safety. He’ll most likely take Ladler’s old role.

J.R. Walker: His case for playing time this season is dependent on some other factors. If the Hokies go small up front, Walker could see the field in multiple roles. The 6-foot, 207-pound redshirt freshman seems to have the ability to play any safety position, but he likely gets onto the field mainly at nickel or rover this season – that should change when Deablo leaves next offseason.

Walker is certainly intriguing, though. According to 247 Sports he was a 4-star recruit and Tech’s fourth-best commit from a strong 2019 class – sandwiched between immediate starters Bryan Hudson and Tayvion Robinson.

Additional Candidate

Nasir Peoples: Not much has been asked of the 6-foot, 195-pound former 4-star recruit, but his time might be coming. He’s only recorded two tackles and half of a sack in 15 games, mostly playing special teams, but with every returning contributor in the secondary approaching draft eligibility, he might be called upon heavily in 2021. For now, he’ll play more special teams.

Overall Outlook

Ignoring the fact that the recruiting trail has been pretty dry, the safeties are in a solid position entering this season.

If we’re projecting whether the unit should be better or worse than last year, it seems fairly clear. Deablo is back, Conner enters his second season as a starter – likely playing in the slot less frequently – and Hunter is a better pure prospect than Floyd who appeared to be increasingly exposed as his career progressed.

A lot of this rests on how much ground the cornerbacks can cover on their own and how much time the safeties see near the linebackers. The corners seem talented enough to mostly be placed on islands – with no need for more than one high safety – allowing the nickel and rover to see lots of time near the line of scrimmage and on the second level. That means more opportunities to blitz or help defend crossing routes and check downs over the middle of the field.

The only preseason recognition any of the safeties have gotten thus far is a fourth-team mention for Conner from Athlon Sports. As long as the other position groups do their jobs, the safeties should be enabled to exceed the expectations of pundits.