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Spring 2016 Virginia Tech Football Roster Review: The Defensive Trenches

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Time to look at what we might see in the Spring from the Defensive line. With the loss of three starters to graduation, there was a distinct possibility of weakness in the line, but this unit looks to be in the best shape that it's been in many years. Here is a review of the new upperclassmen who will take the field in March and April.

Defensive Trenches - Woody Baron crowding up the middle while Motuapuaka gets the tackle agains Georgia Tech
Defensive Trenches - Woody Baron crowding up the middle while Motuapuaka gets the tackle agains Georgia Tech
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The 2015 football season was a most frustrating and confusing situation on the line of scrimmage.  At the start of the season, the Offensive line was not expected to be very effective.  It was loaded with underclassmen that hadn't spent much time on the field with each other; and it had performance holes that were still crying to be filled.   But, before we look at the Offensive line, let us take a good look at the biggest churn in the trenches; DTs and DEs.  At the start of the 2015 season the Defensive line was going to be a first rate veteran unit loaded with starting seniors and expected to dominate opponents.  It was expected to be so good, that the offensive unit raided it for key players like Teller (in 2014) and Nijman (this season).

Pardon me while I clear my throat and roll my eyes a bit.  All sports, but especially football, are a life experience in the defiance of the conventional wisdom.  Not much really works out the way we planned.  We know that the Defensive line seriously under-performed most of the season.  It might have been experienced, but it was undersized, and lacked the ability to put serious pressure on a quarterback and clog up the rushing lanes.  Too often the DEs were caught inside as running quarterbacks passed them up on the way up field.  There was almost no control over the ‘A' gap which left the team vulnerable to delays and zone runs.   There were the nagging injuries that plague most interior linemen.   So the ‘veteran' defensive line was often supplemented by more junior players.  Some games things were good, and some games we couldn't stop a runny nose with a tissue.

There is an irony in the situation, though.  The problems with the starters really allowed their backups quality snaps; and because we are losing so many defensive linemen to graduation that field time is going to be critical in the 2016 season.  The first issue to cover will be the internal churn as the seniors leave the program and are replaced by the existing Hokie underclassmen.

Defensive Lineman Leaving

Number

Name

Pos

HT

WT

YR

89

Laird Gardner

DE

6' 1"

215

GRAD

90

Dadi L'homme Nicolas

DE

6' 3"

223

r-GRAD

92

Luther Maddy

DT

6' 2"

283

r-GRAD

96

Corey Marshall

DT

6' 2"

266

r-GRAD

Those losses, though mitigated somewhat are tough to deal with, until you look at the overall depth at the various DE and DT (End, Stud, Nose, Tackle) positions, and their increased exposure to the field, the Defensive line unit should be able to weather the loss of Luther, Corey, and Dadi.  (Good luck to them with their attempts at finding a team in the NFL.)

While the loss of three of the starting front four is limiting, there are some seriously good quality players waiting on the sideline for their chance to shine.   Ken Ekanem needs to step up from his 2015 effort.  Without going into too many boring details, Ekanem found himself out of position too often.  He had difficulty maintaining his containment assignments, and most of all had some difficulty tackling.  He will have to seriously address those issues for his last season on the field for the Hokies.  As a senior starter (presumably) the squad is going to look to him for leadership and consistency.

The 2016 season will see Tim Settle in the depth chart for the first time.  He redshirted last season, mostly to get into better playing shape, and learn his Nose Tackle responsibilities in greater depth.  Spring is going to be critical for him since it will be a major chance to show improvement.

Mihota moved from Defensive Tackle to Defensive End very early in the season and hasn't looked back.  He's been playing solid football with several highlight tackles in the Independence Bowl, and looks like he's earned a spot on the field.  Woody Baron and Steve Sobczak are both likely to get quality field time since they both had a serious number of snaps in 2015, and look like they are going to be productive.  We are likely to see Ricky Walker and even more of Houshun Gains this season if they stay healthy and fit into the game situations.

In reality, we are seeing the great possibility that the depth chart "starting" position will be superfluous information for most of the season.  With the talent and depth that is beginning to build on the Defensive Line, there is a strong possibility that a situational rotation of players will be used to keep people fresh, and take advantage of differing skill sets.

Defensive Lineman Staying

Number

Name

Pos

HT

WT

YR

4

Ken Ekanem*

DE

6' 3"

248

r-Sr.

41

Houshun Gaines

DE

6' 4"

231

So.

43

Seth Dooley

DE

6' 6"

235

r-Jr.

47

Darius Fullwood**

DE

6' 4"

251

So.

93

Jeremy Haynes***

DE

6' 3"

225

r-Sr.

94

Trevon Hill**

DE

6' 5"

228

So.

99

Vinny Mihota*

DE

6' 5"

270

r-So.

51

Harry Lewis**

DT

6' 0"

260

So.

60

Woody Baron*

DT

6' 1"

275

Sr.

89

Dalton Roe**

DT

6' 1"

235

r-Jr.

91

Steve Sobczak*

DT

6' 1"

309

r-So.

95

Nigel Williams*

DT

6' 4"

299

r-Sr.

97

Tim Settle*

DT

6' 3"

359

So.

98

Ricky Walker*

DT

6' 2"

284

Jr.

* Likely Regular - A Rotation of the Defensive Linemen at the present time.

** 2015 No listed game experience

*** Special Teams

New Defensive Lineman Due to Early Admission

Number

Name

Pos

HT

WT

YR

--

Jimmie Taylor

DE

6' 3"

220

Fr.

There is one early enrollment signee, Jimmie Taylor, a three star Defensive End(ish) player from Jacksonville, North Carolina.  He was recruited by Charley Wiles.  His write ups are pretty good, and his films show him to be quick off the ball but there was little highlighting of any maneuverability, there was pretty much just straight up outside rushing.  He had a pretty nice inside swim move, but seemed to rely heavily on his height advantage and straight rush ability.  In short, he's going to need development, and maybe at his size he should consider a move to Mike or Backer (if he can learn to maneuver).  But I suspect that given our depth at the DE and DT positions young Mr. Taylor will be wearing red in 2016.

The Virginia Tech defensive line unit is probably the most solid and well populated squad on either side of the ball.  It has the most experience for having the least number of returning starters, which though odd, is very encouraging.

As a unit, the line is still too small by a position, meaning Tackles are the size of Ends and Ends are the size of Linebackers, but there is hope on the horizon.  The four probable Tackles for the theoretical rotation are all north of 280, with three above 290.  All are right around the 6'2" mark (little high, little low) but they are closer to appropriate modern football size for the Tackle Position.   We are still a tad light on the ends, but Foster's defensive line scheme really only uses one large Defensive End (Stud) and Vinnie Mihota seems to have taken to that position quite well.

Coach Wiles is going to have a deep and experienced squad to work with in 2016.  We'll see how they move and where they settle (hint, hint there coach) as Spring practice wraps and the Maroon and White Game kickoff (Presumably on April 23 - If the game is played on Spring Family Weekend, again.)

Next Up in the Trenches, the Offensive Line

GO HOKIES!!!!

Sources:

http://www.scout.com/player/189464-jimmie-taylor

http://www.hokiesports.com/football/players/

(Note: the Roster was edited to promote returning players one year, and account for the graduates)