There are strong reasons to believe that the Virginia Tech Hokies football team will have a huge bounce-back season in 2021. Last season, the Hokies finished 5-6 (5-5 in ACC play), which was their worst winning percentage since 1992 when they finished 2-8. The defense was much to blame for a disappointing 2020 season. Last season, the Hokies’ defense was ranked 82nd in points allowed per game (32.1) and 93rd in total yards allowed per game (425.4). This season, the defense for the Hokies looks to make a better presence on the field as a unit. With the new jersey numbers being announced, there are reasons to believe the defense will be better in 2021.
Chamarri Conner and Jermaine Waller are the Unquestioned Leaders
The Hokies were rocked by some departing players right before the 2020 season started. One of these players was cornerback Caleb Farley. Despite some setbacks in overall efficiency, the Hokies relied upon key players in nickelback Chamarri Conner and new number one cornerback Jermaine Waller.
The players voted on the player that would wear the #1 jersey for the 2021 season. With no surprise, they chose Conner to wear the top jersey for the Hokies. Conner has been one of the top defensive playmakers for the Hokies for the past two seasons. He will be the leader of the more experienced defense that returns eight starters from last season. Last season, Conner led the team in total tackles accounted for (81) and solo tackles (60) while also accounting for four pass breakups, two interceptions, and 3.5 tackles for loss.
Conner was not the only defensive star that is transitioning to a new number. Jermaine Waller is switching from #28 to #2, just one number behind Conner. Waller was the top cornerback for the Hokies after Farley decided to forgo the 2020 season due to the impact of COVID-19. Unfortunately for the Hokies, Waller only played in two games this past season due to injury. Waller looks to bounce back in a big way in the upcoming 2021 College Football season.
The Hokies pass defense needs to get better as the defense was ranked 99th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game (243.9). This was a result of young players having to unexpectedly step in and take over as starters. This season with Conner and Waller as experienced and leaders of the defense, the Hokies will look to account for one of the biggest turnarounds in the ACC. Having Conner and Waller switch to the #1 and #2 jersey relates to their roles and identities of the team.
The Hokies’ Defensive Line Forming a Tenacious Unified Unit
Among some of the big surprises in the jersey changes, this offseason are most of the impactful players on the defensive line. Four of the top returning players on the defensive line are switching from middle to late numbers to either single-digit or early 20s.
Defensive tackles Norell Pollard is switching from #96 to #3, defensive tackle Josh Fuga is switching from #58 to #6, defensive end Amare Barno is switching from #38 to #11, and defensive tackle Mario Kendricks is switching from #93 to #22. Defensive end Emmanual Belmar is remaining at the #8 jersey number. Defensive tackle Jordan Williams is sticking with the #59 jersey number, the same number that he had with the Clemson Tigers this past season.
This kind of big change within most of the defensive line indicates that this group is bound to be more tenacious and play as a unit. This is a unit mixed with big-bodied interior defensive linemen that can provide solid run defense and significant pass rush and elusive edge rushers. Barno and Belmar are the solid edge rushers who can consistently account for plays in the backfield. All six of these Hokies defensive linemen are expected to be the main playmakers for the Hokies’ defense this upcoming 2021 College Football season.
They will look to have the Hokies’ defense more solid against the run as they ranked 86th in rushing yards allowed per game (181.5). The defense accounted for a total of 75 tackles for loss and 36 sacks this past season. Virginia Tech was tied for fifth in the nation in sacks accounted for. They will look to continue this high volume of play in 2021 as a strong and unified position group.