BLACKSBURG, Va. — Torrian Gray's voice sounded horse and raspy.
But Virginia Tech's defensive backs coach wasn't battling a cold this week. He was dealing with coaching a secondary full of untested, inexperienced young football players, many of them true freshmen.
And he's doing plenty of yelling.
"We've got our work cut out for us a little bit," Gray this week after a practice.
The Hokies' only established player at his position in the defensive backfield is junior cornerback Kyle Fuller.
In the spring, senior cornerback Antone Exum, a former Deep Run High School standout, moved from safety and the team's two safeties (sophomores Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett) moved from cornerback.
The Hokies ranked fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference last year in pass defense, giving up 200.6 yards per game through the air. But they lost cornerback Jayron Hosley, safety Eddie Whitley and defensive back Chris Hill from last season's team. All three are currently in NFL camps.
But Gray and Virginia Tech feel confident in the starting four. It's the second team that Hokies coach Frank Beamer and defensive coordinator Bud Foster both labeled a cause for "concern."
"That's a big concern," Foster said. "We have some talented young prospects with the freshmen, but right now, it's a whirlwind for them. And we're not slowing down for them. They have to come up to our level."
True freshmen Donaldven Manning and Donovan Riley currently are the backup corners. Sophomore Boye Aromire and redshirt freshman Michael Cole are the second-team safeties.
"They're coming along," Jarrett said. "That second group, whoever it's going to be, I feel like they're going to be ready when the time comes."
But Gray, who played defensive back at Tech and then in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings, sounded less optimistic.
"We're not ready, at least at this point, to compete to win a conference championship with those guys," Gray said. "They're not at that level, have a long way to go. As time goes on and they hear it and see it and they do it a lot more, hopefully in time we'll feel good about our chances with those guys out there if they had to be on the field."
This preseason, Tech moved Cole from free safety to rover, where he'll have more run-stopping responsibility. Aromire is at free safety, where more pass coverage is required.
But cornerback is the truly thin spot.
Manning will see time as the top backup at corner, and he got a jump start on his preparation by enrolling in the spring and going through spring practice with Tech.
"I feel like he's a step ahead of the other freshmen right now," Bonner said.
Still, if there were an injury to Fuller or Exum, Gray said Tech would more likely move Bonner back to corner than start Manning.
It's a move Bonner said he's ready to make at a moment's notice, saying he hasn't forgotten any of his assignments from cornerback.
"It's fine. I got it all," said Bonner, who bulked up this offseason to play safety. "It stays. I can move just like that."
Gray, in his seventh season on the Tech staff, said if he has to play true freshmen in the secondary this year, the Hokies will have to scale back their defensive play calls.
"We can really simplify it for you if we need to," Gray said. "But the more true freshmen you play, the more games you're going to lose. That's just the reality of it."
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