Virginia Tech Spring Practice Features Tight Battles On Defense

The Virginia Tech football team begins spring practice Wednesday as it begins its quest for a third ACC championship in four years.

The Hokies capped the 2009 season with a 37-14 drubbing of Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to finish with a 10-3 record.

Off that team, nine players with starting experience on the defensive side of the ball are gone.

Heralded defensive coordinator Bud Foster may be facing his toughest challenge ever by replacing the entire defensive line and half of the secondary.

Even with the regular season more than five months away, this time of the year is still vital for coaches to bring former backups up to speed before the fall.

On the defensive line, both defensive end positions are up for grabs.

Chris Drager enters camp with a strong hold at one end over Isaiah Hamlette.

Drager practiced last spring at tight end but was buried beneath Greg Boone, Andre Smith and Sam Wheeler on the depth chart.

The coaches would have probably liked to move Drager back to offense this year after Boone and Wheeler’s graduation, but when Jason Worilds declared for the NFL Draft early, it kept Drager on defense.

Hamlette is a young talent with great potential, but struggles picking up different packages Foster employs, which is his biggest setback at this stage.

The other end of the defensive line seems to be Steven Friday’s job to lose.

Friday, a rising senior has been largely disappointing thus far in his career. After coming to Tech as a prized recruit, Friday has never started a game for the Hokies.

His biggest challengers will be Duan Perez-Means, Joe Jones, and incoming freshman Zack McCray.

McCray, a high school All-American, will get a strong look in the fall for playing time. Without him on campus yet, the spring sessions are very important for Friday to solidify himself at the stud end spot.

John Graves started eight games in 2009 at defensive tackle, and is firmly cemented as a full-time starter in 2010. Injuries set Graves back last season more than anything else.

Although he has experience at defensive end, it doesn’t sound like the coaches want to move him from tackle. He might get some reps here or there so he’s ready in case of emergency, but other than that he is strictly a tackle.

Antoine Hopkins and Dwight Tucker will battle for the other spot. It’s almost a moot point, because Tech regularly rotates its linemen anyway. Hopkins has a leg up this spring, and at 6’0, 295 lbs. he has the look of a stone cold run-stuffer.

There is not a larger void on the Tech defense than the one Cody Grimm leaves behind at whip linebacker.

Alonzo Tweedy and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow are the likely successors at the position.

Neither has any real game experience, so you can bet Foster will throw as much at them as they can handle the next few weeks.

The secondary is in great hands with position coach Torrian Gray, who churns out NFL-caliber defensive backs like Toyota does shitty cars.

The departures of Stephan Virgil and Kam Chancellor seem substantial on the surface, but truth is their replacements might turn out to be better. The Hokies were burned consistently by the passing game in 2009, but this year’s group seems to be better suited to prevent such aerial attacks.

Eddie Whitley and Cris Hill are vying for the boundary corner spot. Rashad Carmichael moves to field corner to take over for Virgil. For the past four years, Gray has moved the most experienced corner to that position, and they have turned in spectacular seasons.

Whitley is a better athlete than Hill and has a higher ceiling of potential, which could tip the scales in his favor. However, Hill has performed better on the field than Whitley in the little time they’ve had. Whitley earned a good deal of playing time early in 2009, but a slew of missed tackles buried him on the bench down the stretch.

At free safety, Lorenzo Williams and Antone Exum are neck and neck for the starting job. This seems to be the tightest race of any position. Exum is a freak athlete that the coaches want to get on the field as soon as possible. Williams has battled injuries in his first two years at Tech, but is a more natural free safety than Exum. Don’t expect a starter to be named here until August.

If history tells us anything, it’s that Foster will have his boys whipped into shape in plenty of time for the season opener against Boise State, which is only 23 weeks from today.

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