BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech coach Brent Pry gives all his defensive players what he calls a “Hunt” grade.
Every time a player reacts and attacks in the manner he’s been taught, his grade goes up. Any time he doesn’t, the grade goes down. Tech’s defenders view their final Hunt grade as a source of pride.
“Never want to be at the bottom of that list, always working to be at the top,” Tech linebacker Dax Hollifield said. “It gives us a good standard to meet each and every week.”
On a macro level, Tech’s defense has met the standard so far. The Hokies rank fifth nationally in total defense and 19th in scoring defense, albeit against a less-than-daunting offensive triumvirate of Old Dominion, Boston College and Wofford.
The stakes go up considerably on Thursday night, when West Virginia brings its up-tempo offense filled with speedy weapons to Lane Stadium.
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Pry’s mandate, however, does not change.
“We have to feel like the defensive unit is swarming to the football, and there’s really zero tolerance,” Pry said. “Things happen around the ball, and you don’t know what play that’s going to occur on. So you’ve got to rally to it each and every snap and make sure the one time the ball does pop out or there’s an opportunity for you, you’re there to take it. Otherwise, it’s a missed opportunity.”
Open-field tackling is always paramount against WVU, which likes to get its receivers and backs into space and bank on them making opponents miss. Pry calls tackling “a lost art” because high school teams don’t drill it as much as they once did, but his Hokies have been strong in that department thus far.
Pro Football Focus ranks their overall tackling 24th in FBS. The analytics site has been particularly impressed with the defensive backfield, ranking Chamarri Conner, Dorian Strong, JR Walker and Brion Murray among the team’s top five tacklers to date.
The only non-DB among the top five Tech tacklers is Keonta Jenkins, a former safety who moved up to No. 1 on the depth chart at Sam linebacker this week.
“It’s new to him,” Pry said of the position, which requires the linebacker to operate in space. “When we first approached him with it, he kind of gave me that sideways look, like, ‘What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis? Like, hold on, now. I’m a DB.’ But he’s really growing into the position.
“That spot’s a big part of what we do.”
Blacksburg High School graduate Cole Beck showed up on Tech’s two-deep for the first time on Monday, checking in at No. 2 at kick returner along with Chance Black.
Beck rejoined the team this season after spending 2020 and 2021 focusing on track — where he’s set records as a sprinter — and academics. The former running back has been working with the wideouts and serving as a gunner on the punt-coverage team since his return.
“We want to give Beck an opportunity,” Pry said. “A chance to get the ball in his hands. He’s obviously a fast guy. When you talk about a guy that can make a difference and make a big, explosive play, he’s certainly one of those guys. We’ve just got to keep creating opportunities, and that’s one way we can do it.”
The Hokies have just four days prepare this week instead of the usual six. Several of the team’s analysts began breaking down West Virginia last week ahead of the Wofford game, and Tech is prioritizing rest and recovery going into Thursday.
“We’ve minimized the amount of time that we’ll be at practice,” Pry said. “We’ve minimized the intensity of practice in places and kind of combined multiple days into one. So quite a bit of planning and adjustments made to the week schedule.”
Pry said wideout Kaleb Smith, who was held out of the second half Saturday with an injury, looks much improved physically over a week ago. The coach said he’s “encouraged” about how much Smith will be able to play Thursday.
“He’s a little bit frustrated,” Pry said. “Guys like Kaleb that give their body up and play so hard every snap, they get banged up. I love that about him. He’s one of those guys, he’s kind of a throwback.”
Pry running back Malachi Thomas is “probably a long shot” to play this week and will be a game-day decision. Thomas, who ran for 440 yards on 93 carries last year, has yet to play this season as he’s battled a left foot injury.
Keshawn King was listed atop the depth chart at running back after being held out of the Wofford game for precautionary reasons with a minor injury.