The Virginia Tech Hokies got good news over the last 48 hours, when Antone Exum and James Gayle both announced their plans to return to Virginia Tech for their senior years, instead of foregoing them to pursue the NFL Draft.
Both players announced their decisions over Twitter:
1. I officially will be returning for my senior season with my team! Working towards ACC and National titles! #AUG31— Antone Exum Jr. (@IAmSwag1) January 9, 2013
After much thought I have decided to postpone my NFL ambitions to complete my degree and work towards another championship.— James Gayle (@JGayle99) January 10, 2013
Exum spent the first half of 2012 learning the corner position. It appeared a steep learning curve for him, as he was badly beaten in the opening weeks of the season, and oft-penalized for both holding and pass interference. But as the season progressed, he became one of the most consistent and best players on the defensive side of the ball, and possibly the Hokies best corner.
Gayle had set a personal goal of 10 sacks for the season, of which he fell way short. He actually regressed statistically, and for large parts of the season, (particularly the early going) his impact was invisible. Gayle battled nagging injuries and was even benched twice by the coaching staff, but still ended up second on the team with 5 sacks and first with 27 hurries.
Their decisions to return should give the Hokies a defense that looks somewhat like this, provided there are no injuries, suspensions, etc. before the start of the season (knocking on wood BIG TIME right now):
CB Kyle Fuller Sr.
DE J.R. Collins/Corey Marshall r-Sr./Jr.
DT Luther Maddy/Corey Marshall Jr./Jr.
DT Derrick Hopkins Sr.
DE James Gayle r-Sr.
CB Antone Exum r-Sr.
ILB Tariq Edwards r-Sr.
ILB Jack Tyler r-Sr.
WHIP Ronny Vandyke r-So.
FS Detrick Bonner r-Jr.
ROV Kyshoen Jarrett Jr.
(returning starters in bold)
Looking at that lineup, I notice several things. 1. I think most all Hokie fans will be satisfied with that lineup right there. Returning nine starters, including six who started every game, (which I know means very little, just thought I would provide that tidbit) and Tariq Edwards, a 2011 starter who missed virtually the entire 2012 season. There is no guarantee he will start, as much as I would like to include him in that set. But at the time being, there is not a very natural candidate to replace him should he not be the guy, not be ready to go, or suffer another injury (again, the wood thing). This starting defense would represent a strong group that returns seven of the Hokies top eight defensive linemen (save Antoine Hopkins to eligibility).
2. While all of us were impressed with Ronny Vandyke, the Hokies will miss Alonzo Tweedy. In truth, it appears he should have been playing all season...or even longer. Looking at his numbers in what little action he did see, he was among the Hokies most efficient defenders and could've had a Cody Grimm-esque season at the position, something that has been missing since Grimm's departure in 2009. With Edwards (likely) back to the fold to replace Taylor, I think we'll miss Tweedy even more than Taylor in 2013, especially with his impact on special teams.
3. This defense may not be as hyped as the 2012 edition that let prognosticators and fans down, but there is no reason it can't be every bit as good or better. By the end of the year, the Hokies were gelling, particularly in the secondary, where they had struggled to find a foothold early in the season with three players in new positions. Now that that appears to be settled, look for them to go into the season looking more or less like they did at the end of 2012 (as long as they can solve the disconcerting trend where experienced defenses look horrid early on). This defense may be able to surprise people, as experts will probably come to the realization that they were hyped too much a year ago and sour on them. But make no mistakes, this defense is every bit as good on paper as they were a year ago.
UPDATE: 4. As you'll see in the comments, I forgot that looking over this lineup, seven of the projected starters are seniors. That means we're going to see a completely different unit in 2014 regardless. And considering that all of the other projected starters will all be draft eligible by the end of 2013, it is possible that one or more would consider leaving as well. Either way, don't expect the 2014 defense to live up to the defense of 2012 or 2013 as the lineup is currently projected.
Now the Hokies wait the decision of quarterback Logan Thomas, who has until Jan. 15 to decide if he will forego his senior year and enter the NFL Draft, and the potential hiring of new offensive staff. All-along Thomas was the one player who was most likely to declare based on what we've been hearing, but with his return, we could be talking. Without it, and Tech is probably a bad offensive team with a good defense a la 2006-2008.
For all the breaking news regarding those potential moves, stay tuned to Gobbler Country, your Virginia Tech news source.