2012 was not a banner year for the Hokies at the whip linebacker position. Nor was 2011. Nor was 2010. At a position which is vital to the success of the Virginia Tech defense, that's an alarming trend. Last year, the position was a virtual who's who of players trying to make their mark. While Tech returned a two-year starter in Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, and redshirt-freshman Ronny Vandyke impressed in sporadic playing time, the team probably came closest to finding their best option since Grimm in special teams extraordinaire Alonzo Tweedy. The only problem: both JGW and Tweedy were out of eligibility at the end of the season. But that didn't worry Virginia Tech fans, as Ronny Vandyke seemed the heir apparent, ready to step into the void and lay his claim to the position. That is until last week when it was announced Vandyke would miss the season with a shoulder injury that required surgery. Vandyke injured the shoulder either in the practice or the scrimmage portion of the Hokies' first public scrimmage of fall.
Now, all of the sudden, a position of considerable depth in 2012 (if not one with a star player) is essentially barren, with only walk-ons behind the injured Vandyke on the depth chart, none of which have gotten many reps at the position in game situations. So what are the options available to the Hokies in Vandyke's absence?
We begin with redshirt-sophomore Josh Trimble, a former invited walk-on to the program who chose Virginia Tech over multiple scholarship offers. While it is not clear if he would be the guy, he has considerable field experience on special teams, earning the honor by many as the next Alonzo Tweedy on the unit. But, Trimble has only spent one year at the whip position. He also spent quite some time away from the team due to a legal issue in 2012 and early 2013. Although he has limited experience at the position, Bud Foster has called him a playmaker and the leader (at the moment) to take over the duties at the position. He is listed as the top player at the position on the most recent depth chart.
Behind him on the depth chart is redshirt-junior Derek DiNardo. DiNardo, also a walk-on, has seen similar experience as Trimble on special teams units over an additional year in the program, but has only seen one more play on defense than Trimble. He does, however, have an interception to his name that came in the opener of the 2011 season against Appalachian State. But like Trimble, DiNardo spent nearly one full year of his time with the team at different positions.
Redshirt-freshman walk on Quinton Taylor is also listed at third on the depth chart, but his name has not been mentioned in connection with playing time. He also spent his only year in the program so far working at defensive back and has yet to see game action.
There is however another option that has/had been, although a little unconventional, which was discussed early in fall practice. That option: putting true freshman Kendall Fuller at whip to get him on the field the quickest way possible. The only problem is, with Antone Exum's injury, he and Brandon Facyson are now locked in a battle to start at cornerback until Exum's return. Further complicating matters is that two cornerbacks transferred early in fall camp, giving the Hokies only four healthy scholarship cornerbacks at the moment. Which is why I believe that we'll only see Kendall at whip if Trimble/DiNardo struggle so much that it necessitates his move there. He may also get reps at the position should Exum return.
While I would love to see another scholarship linebacker who has previously been at the position (Dahman McKinnon), or moving one of their talented backups like Chase Williams or Deon Clarke there in some capacity for experience, depth and talent reasons, there has been no indication that the staff is considering any such move.
If the rest of the Hokies defense can take pressure off whomever plays at whip this season, it will afford that/those players the opportunity to make plays as the position is designed. It should also remove some of the stress and expectations of those players. The key is not allowing the opponent to be able to exploit it.
As for the future of the position, it is even more cloudy. I have long thought that behind the offensive line and quarterback, the Hokies linebacking corps has been the most neglected position in recent recruiting classes. We are now seeing the effects of that, whether the staff did not believe the issue to be as serious, or if they simply tried but were unable to land linebacking prospects they had targeted. Knowing what I do as a recruitnik, I would unfortunately be more inclined to believe the former.
If Vandyke is able to return next year with a clean bill of health, perhaps he will re-assume the position. Or, one of the walk-ons could make the case to be the permanent guy at that position. It is even possible that the staff moves a player from another position to compete for the job or take over permanently. But for now, there are more questions than answers at the position both short term and long term, and it won't be until the 2013 season is played until we find most of them out.
For continued coverage of Virginia Tech football, including positional prognoses, Gobbler Country has you covered. Make sure to check back soon for our positional prognosis of the running back position.