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Tech coaches tried everything they could to shore up struggling secondary, run defense against UNC

Tech coaches tried everything they could to shore up struggling secondary, run defense against UNC

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Virginia Tech North Carolina Football

North Carolina wide receiver Dyami Brown (right) scores a touchdown as Virginia Tech defensive back Armani Chatman defends during the first half Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C. Virginia Tech trailed 42-17 midway through the third quarter en route to a 56-45 loss.

CHAPEL HILL — Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente burned his third and final timeout in the closing minutes of a 56-45 loss to North Carolina with the clock stopped.

The stoppage came on the heels of the Tar Heels having to call a timeout of their own with the play clock winding down, but it was all Fuente could do to prevent UNC from scoring another touchdown.

North Carolina had two wide receivers line up to the left side without a single defender in coverage.

Play-by-play announcer Bob Wischusen called having to use the timeout a “gut punch” for Tech, but the miscue wasn’t all that surprising given the circumstances.

Tech played much of the fourth quarter with multiple defenders having to fill in at positions they weren’t overly familiar with. Linebacker Alan Tisdale moved to boundary safety and cornerback Jermaine Waller shifted over to nickel.

As North Carolina plowed through the defense, defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton tried to make adjustments, but didn’t have many options given Tech’s lack of personnel in the secondary.

“We’ve worked some offensive guys on the defensive side of the ball and we started talking about doing some of that, and I think that’s what led to putting [Jermaine] Waller at nickel and putting three linebackers in,” Fuente said. “Just trying to find something. You can’t just sit back and watch the same thing over and over again. We’ve got to try to do something. And I don’t know. I’ve never been a part of anything like that, where you’re in that situation.”

Tech had 10 scholarship defensive backs (out of 15) available to play on Saturday — up from the seven they had in uniform against Duke — but starting safeties Divine Deablo and Keonta Jenkins were among the 15 players that didn’t travel to Chapel Hill.

The Hokies started walk-on Tyler Matheny and J.R. Walker at safety and the only other scholarship safeties dressed out were redshirt freshman Ny’Quee Hawkins and true freshman Lakeem Rudolph.

Things got worse for the secondary when nickel Chamarri Conner was ejected for targeting in the first quarter.

Fuente wanted to cross-train players to avoid the exact scenario they faced on Saturday, but the coaching staff didn’t have enough defensive backs at practice to be able to do it coming out of fall camp thanks to a combination of injuries and COVID-19 related absences.

“It came down to, we were drawing stuff up in order to get people in the game,” Fuente said. “I’ve never been a part of anything like in terms of having no safeties. ... It’s just almost not even like football, but it is what it is.”

Waller, who was playing in his first game this season, knew a little bit about each position in the back end, but hadn’t ever repped at the position.

“The conversation — it was just basically, like, step up in nickel,” Waller said. “That’s all. Talked through a few plays and what to look for. I haven’t really practiced it, but it worked out.”

It didn’t help that they were facing a North Carolina offense that could take advantage of Tech’s weaknesses. The changes Hamilton made in the fourth quarter did little to slow down the Tar Heels. They had 203 yards in the fourth with 10 first downs (seven rushing).

Fuente was emotional after the game for having to put the defense in such a tough situation.

“I feel for our kids,” Fuente said. “I believe they are working their tails off.”

Mike Niziolek is the Virginia Tech football beat writer for The Roanoke Times. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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