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Virginia Tech progress reports: the secondary

The secondary was the one part of Bud Foster's defense that seemed to not be in flux entering this season. Three of the four starters were back, and junior free safety Eddie Whitley, the lone newcomer, was a junior with extensive playing experience. On the surface, though, it appears they've taken a step back in 2010.

After finishing 2009 ranked 11th in the country in passing defense, Virginia Tech has fallen to 44th this year, allowing almost 35 more yards per game through the air. But those numbers can be a bit misleading, considering how many pass-heavy offenses the Hokies have faced this year. Only 36 teams have defended more pass attempts than Virginia Tech, and on average teams are throwing six more pass attempts per game than a year ago.

More importantly, a look the passer efficiency ratings and completion percentages of the Hokies' opponents show just how little the performance of Virginia Tech's secondary has changed in 2010. Quarterbacks are completing just 48.5 percent of their passes and have a 105.24 passer rating against the Hokies, which puts them second and eighth in the country, respectively, in those categories. Those are identical rankings to what the 2009 unit finished with.

The numbers are likely to improve Thursday when the Hokies face the option attack of Georgia Tech. But let's take a look player-by-player to see if we can figure out why this unit has been so successful once again. And if you haven't done so already, check out my earlier breakdowns of Virginia Tech's wide receivers, running backs, offensive line, defensive line and linebackers.

CB Rashad Carmichael

The senior from Clinton has gone by "Rock" rather than his given first name since childhood, and it's been an apt description this season. The lone senior cornerback, Carmichael has lived up to his billing as a shutdown cornerback and a staple on this year's defense, for the most part.

The one game in which he gave up any completions of significance was against East Carolina, when he committed two pass interference penalties and gave up a touchdown reception to the Pirates. But in the second half he persevered and picked off two passes, including one he returned for a touchdown.

Carmichael has been one of the more outspoken leaders for this young defense and he's been more than willing to mix it up in the run game with 20 tackles thus far. His strengths, though, lie in his physicality in the passing game. Playing mostly man-to-man as a boundary corner, Carmichael is tied for 10th nationally with 1.25 passes defended per game (seven break-ups, three interceptions. He also graded out higher than any other defender in the Hokies' most recent win over Duke.

Carmichael's Grade: A-

CB Jayron Hosley

While I mentioned earlier in the week that linebacker Bruce Taylor's consistency has been perhaps the biggest defensive surprise, there's been no bigger breakout player on Virginia Tech's defense than Hosley. Lined up at field cornerback, he ranks third in the country with five interceptions and is tied for first nationally with 1.57 passes defended per game.

His performance in the comeback victory over North Carolina State won't be soon forgotten, either. Hosley picked off Wolfpack quarterback Russell Wilson three times, broke up four other passes, finished with six solo tackles and nearly shattered a school record when coaches graded his performance afterward. Hosley received both national and conference player of the week accolades as a result of the performance.

What makes the playmaking even more impressive is his timeliness. Twice, Hosley has intercepted passes in the end zone with opposing teams driving for a potential touchdown. And his punt returning in the past three games has made him even more of a threat. He had a punt return for a touchdown against Central Michigan and set up touchdowns in wins over Wake Forest and Duke with returns of more than 55 yards.

There are still times, however, when Hosley demonstrates he's just a sophomore. In addition to being suspended for violating team rules against East Carolina, he's not yet the sure tackler Carmichael has become and is prone to some missed assignments from time to time. But make no mistake, he's convinced Virginia Tech's coaching staff that they already have their next NFL-caliber cornerback on the roster already.

Hosley's Grade: A

Rover Davon Morgan

Though he's listed at just 198 pounds, Morgan has been the muscle of this year's Virginia Tech defense. From his rover, or strong safety position, he trails only Taylor in terms of total tackles and his penchant for intimidating hits has made opponents wary of trying to throw across the middle.

A former high school quarterback, Morgan got the first interception of his collegiate career against Central Michigan. He showed some big brother-like characteristics when he helped back up redshirt freshman Antone Exum when he had to make the secondary calls last week starting in place of Eddie Whitley.

In addition, Morgan has been the model of consistency, playing more snaps than any other defensive player. He's also been a vital member of Virginia Tech's special teams and even blocked a punt against Boise State. Morgan may not make the spectacular play all that often, but his improvement and leadership since making the switch to rover as a freshman has impressed his coaches.

“I’m really proud of him,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “From where he’s come from and how he’s worked at it. He’s really been a good football player for us."

Morgan's Grade: A-

FS Eddie Whitley

Coming into the season, Whitley had perhaps the toughest task for Virginia Tech's defense: replacing last year's leader Kam Chancellor. From the start, though, Whitley has embraced this challenge.

He was the defense's best player in the loss to Boise State, and his versatility playing coverage or moving into the box to defend the run has helped Foster use a wide array of formations this year. He also makes all the calls on the field for the secondary.

That Whitley leads the team in solo tackles this year despite missing last week's game against Duke with a foot injury speak volumes for just how effective he's been this year.

"I knew he was good," secondary coach Torian Gray said earlier this year. "But he's better than I anticipated him being."

Whitley has had some hiccups in the passing game. He was beaten several times by East Carolina's Dwayne Harris, and when he bit on Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore's run fake, it left linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow on an island when the Broncos scored their game-winning fourth quarter touchdown.

Whitley's Grade: A

CB/S Antone Exum

Exum originally began the year as Morgan's back-up at rover, but after the Hokies began the season 0-2, Foster decided to include the 217-pound redshirt freshman in the lineup more often. And while he's had his share of ups and downs, Exum is currently tied for 40th in the country in passes defended playing primarily in Virginia Tech's nickel and three linemen packages. He also got his first career start at free safety last week against Duke with Whitley nursing a foot injury.

Exum burst onto the scene against East Carolina when he was inserted as the third cornerback in the Hokies' nickel scheme, earning the highest grade amongst defense players after he finished with 15 total tackles in 74 plays. Against North Carolina State, he had five pass break-ups, but was also picked on at times by the Wolfpack. He overcame one of his weaknesses against the Blue Devils when he called out coverages for the first time from the free safety position.

Exum's Grade: A-

CB Kyle Fuller

Fuller, a true freshman, got his first-ever start against East Carolina when Hosley was suspended for violating team rules. By all accounts, he held up well in that game and did not look overmatched against the Pirates dynamic passing game.

Since then, he's seen sporadic playing time but did get on the field for 70 plays against Duke this past weekend. In that game, he was used in the Hokies nickel package often, taking Exum's spot as the third cover corner since Exum was playing free safety for the injured Whitley.

Foster hinted this week that Fuller did such a good job, he could be used there Thursday night against Georgia Tech even with Whitley back in the mix. However, Fuller did give up a 78-yard touchdown pass against Wake Forest when he missed an assignment. Regardless, he appears to be the front-runner to take over Carmichael's starting cornerback job next season.

"Kyle Fuller, being a freshman, had to be rushed up into a situation," Gray said earlier this season. "But fortunate enough, he’s been able to respond because we haven’t had some other guys respond like I thought."

Fuller's Grade: B+

CB Cris Hill

Hill, a redshirt junior, was a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, but it appears he will fall short in living up to those standards. Blessed with fantastic athletic ability, Hill has never gained the trust of the coaching staff and has been passed by Fuller on the depth chart, as evidenced by the East Carolina game. Hill has gotten some playing time in the past three games when the Hokies have taken large leads in the second half.

Hill's Grade: C

By Mark Giannotto  | November 3, 2010; 9:27 AM ET
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