Virginia Tech only won eight games last season. That's an unusual occurrence in recent years, but a vintage Hokie defense is not to blame for the underachievement. Bud Foster's Hokie defense ranked 4th in the nation in total defense, 7th in sacks and 10th against the run. The latter two numbers speak to the strength up the middle in the Virginia Tech front seven.
The defensive attack starts with great push from the defensive line and Tech's dominant defensive tackles. Virginia Tech prides itself on generating significant quarterback pressure with just the front four, allowing their speed players in the LB corps and the secondary to free up to break up plays and destroy ball-carriers. Rising senior Luther Maddy, and his partner who will soon be playing on Sundays, Derrick Hopkins, were one of the most effective tandems in school history. Maddy finished with 55 total tackles, 13.5 of which were for loss including a team-high 6.5 sacks. Hopkins posted similar numbers with 54 tackles, 9 for loss and 4 sacks.
It is with great anticipation that we await the return of Corey Marshall to bolster the unit next fall. Marshall has a couple years experience and a bit of a mean streak. When his motor is running he can rush the passer and stop the run with equal parts ferocity. Marshall has played both defensive tackle and end at Virginia Tech. He missed three weeks this past season after he left the team for personal reasons and upon returning to the team Frank Beamer announced he would redshirt and move back to defensive end. If he's healthy and dedicated he provides a veteran presence in what is shaping up to be a young line.
There was just as much production from the end position. James Gayle posted 44 total tackles and a team-high 34 quarterback hurries while J.R. Collins had 51 tackles and 5 sacks. The line was productive and showed tremendous athleticism but only one starter returns in the form of Luther Maddy, and for a team that prides itself on stacking it's defense, the depth is a prominent concern.
Depth at the DT is going to be critical. VT is very thin, with two unprovens in Nigel Williams and Woody Baron. Baron was a true freshman who saw time in a backup role and Williams worked into the rotation with 14 tackles, 11 TFL and two sacks as a redshirt freshman. Assuming everything goes well on Wednesday, the Hokies will add freshman Ricky Walker (verbally committed for '14) and perhaps the coveted Derrick Nnadi, who says he has made up his mind on his choice of school, but wants his televised moment of hat-faking history. We will know for sure on Wednesday. It is possible that both of these young men could compete for time in the two-deep, with Nnadi the more likely of the two.
It's a similar story in the linebacking corps. The already thin group was anchored in the middle by Jack Tyler who led the team with 100 total tackles. He also finished with 4.5 sacks and 12 QB hurries. Tariq Edwards was right behind him with 74 tackles, 3.5 sacks and an interception.Those two LBs were the only two to get significant time, and it killed VT in two games, with Tyler too gassed to move sideline to sideline against Marshall and Maryland and their mobile quarterbacks. Too often on third down and long, the Hokies would tee off on the pass rush and Gayle and Collins would get pushed wide, allowing a pocket for the QB to sneak out one on one against whatever LB or nickel back was manning that side. In one on one battles, it's often 50/50. Foster often eschews the third LB in favor of secondary speed. And as an innovator, it is the thought here that since the team had a consistent weakness, Foster will tinker and find a way to contain the spread option.
So far, that's five major contributors lost from a well-regarded, veteran unit. The brightest spot on the line outside of Maddy, who has the potential to be first-team All-ACC, is Dadi Nicolas. In fact, Nicolas might make everyone forget about every DE we've had since dare I say it: Mr. Corey Moore. This may sound like high praise, but Nicolas' combination of speed, power, and balance leaves offensive linemen grasping at air, and QBs on their knees in the dirt looking for their mouthpieces. Having to split time with two guys in James Gayle and JR Collins who had spent the better part of six years starting, definitely ate into Dadi's opportunities to get at the QB. His three sack game against Pitt was just a taste of what's in store for the rest of the ACC, and the fact he's familiar with Pitt will be all the more helpful as VT tries to go into Pittsburgh and get a win for the first time since 1999 (and yes, I'm aware we don't have Michael Vick this time). The only drawback with Nicolas might be that he plays a little reckless and can be fooled into losing containment. He had 34 tackles with 4 sacks and 13 quarterback hurries. Nicolas has proved versatile in the past, having even played a little WHIP.
Matt Roth mostly saw action at special teams but he's another end who will have an opportunity to earn significant playing time. A taller end, he offers the ability to get up and knock passes down. We haven't had tall DEs (outside of beanpole Steven Friday) since Chris Ellis roamed the idyllic Blacksburg campus. Listed behind Nicolas and Roth on the too-early-to-tell depth chart are DeWayne Alford, and the once highly-regarded Ken Ekanem. Neither is a known quantity, but at 6'3", 242 Ekanem has great size. He mostly saw action on special teams this season.
In the event neither of the backups is ready to play, VT could look to two promising in-bound freshmen in the already enrolled Vinny Mihota, or Kevin Bronson a 6'4 speed rushing machine from DelRay that VT secured this past weekend. Bronson and Mihota both boast impressive film. Bronson looks to be physically ready now, while Mihota might be a tad behind.
The LB unit will hopefully be led by junior Deon Clarke, who is one of those players that oozes talent and athleticism, but he needs to think faster than his feet will carry him. Also projected to see a lot of time is Derek DiNardo who has been a standout on special teams in recent years. Both are fine athletes who are familiar with the system. With that said, Bud Foster has never been afraid to mix in young players or walk-ons like Jack Tyler or Cody Grimm at linebacker either. This year Tech is largely unproven at linebacker and could look to a young player like Melvin Keihn. Baltimore native Keihn is a verbal commitment and one of Tech's best linebacking recruits since Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi started as freshmen in 2004.
Tech will also look for a young guy like redshirt freshman Andre Motuapuaka (mo-TOO-uh-poo-WAH-kuh) to step up, and hope for the healthy return of redshirt sophomore Ronny Van Dyke and his redshirt freshman brother Devin also missed last season due to injury. Ronny was the starting whip linebacker before a shoulder injury in preseason practice and Devin tore his ACL in action against Western Carolina. Veterans Chase Williams and Josh Trimble round out the unit, though with the athleticism in front of them at a position that sometimes get short-changed when Foster switches to nickel, it's likely that the veterans have been passed by.
Clearly, there will be a lot of young players in the front seven discussion this summer, and it's a little unsettling how many new faces there are. Usually a team strives for succession, but lack of coordination in staggering the classes has once again led to some thin areas. The Hokies have been here before though, and have come out just fine, as they always find eager, capable contributors.
Bud Foster always seems to pull his defense together regardless of personnel. Some years it's an unheralded walk-on, other times he plays highly-touted true freshman like Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facsyon last season. Foster's most recent unit was an exceptional group, so it's hard to expect a young bunch to match those efforts, but Tech has lots of talent and with a few breaks on national signing day could have even more young guys with the ability to crack the two-deep on defense.
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