DURHAM, N.C. — Virginia Tech fans probably had to pull up the team’s roster to figure out who was starting in the secondary on Saturday afternoon.
The Hokies only had seven of their 15 scholarship defensive backs available in a 38-31 win over Duke and three of those were true freshmen as the program continues to deal with fallout from a COVID-19 outbreak in September.
Tech listed 21 players as unavailable for Saturday’s game along with defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton and defensive backs coach Ryan Smith. The Hokies had 23 players out for the opener last week, but those absences were mostly spread out across the team.
That wasn’t the case this week with starting free safety Divine Deablo along with the team’s top four defensive backs (Jermaine Waller, Armani Chatman, Brion Murray and Devin Taylor) all ruled out. The team was also without J.R. Walker, Nasir Peoples and Devon Hunter.
Peoples suffered a season-ending injury during fall camp and Hunter was indefinitely suspended in September.
Tech coach Justin Fuente summed up the situation when asked how he decided Nadir Thompson and freshman Dorian Strong would get the start at cornerback.
“Those were the only two we had,” Fuente said with a shake of his head.
Thompson, a third-year sophomore, has been hampered by injuries for much of his career and primarily works at safety in practice.
Walk-ons Hunter Green and Keondre Banks worked with the second-team defense at cornerback during pregame warmups. The next guys in line at the position would have been players from the offense.
According to Fuente, Tech didn’t find out until late in the week that the team would be without so many defensive backs. The only starters in the lineup from Week 1 were true freshman Keonta Jenkins at boundary safety and whip linebacker Chamarri Conner.
With Deablo out, walk-on Tyler Matheny started at free safety.
“We were scrambling,” Fuente said.
Thompson had three tackles (two solo), Strong had five tackles (four solo) and a pass breakup and Matheny had seven tackles (six solo) with two tackles for a loss. Matheny also picked off Duke quarterback Chase Brice in the first quarter.
Brice was 22 of 39 for 271 yards with a touchdown and interception. He was sacked seven times.
After making some halftime adjustments, Duke attacked Strong on the outside in the second half. While the defensive back gave up a pair of long completions, Fuente was pleased with how the former three-star signee out of Henry Wise High School in Maryland played in the win.
"I thought he did really well,” Fuente said. “I know there was one double-move that I thought was a great throw. He was there or close. He's been a competitor. He's not scared.”
Fuente credited both Thompson and Strong for maintaining a positive attitude throughout the game despite some mistakes. Thompson has played in 14 career games, but this was his first extended action on the defensive side of the ball.
“You get worried about letting other people down,” Fuente said. “You got Rayshard Ashby on the field with you and sometimes that can tie guys up in knots when they are young and maybe fairly inexperienced and thrown into battle. The moment wasn't too big for them. They went out there and competed. When things didn't go well, they went out there and played the next play."
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