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Virginia Tech Hokies 2016 Roster Preview - Defensive Line

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The 2016 Virginia Tech Hokie Defensive line looks like it's deep enough to sustain us for a season, it's light on Freshman, and that's not good. The quality of the senior and underclass players is very good, but they will all have to step up this season.

Ken Ekanem Steps out as a Senior Leader.  This year it's time for the D-Line to shine.
Ken Ekanem Steps out as a Senior Leader. This year it's time for the D-Line to shine.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

There is no way to mince words, here.  Though this is the most experienced and best starting unit of all of the 2016 Hokies, it is also the most challenged for depth.  The item that should alarm most folks most about the current Defensive Line Roster is the total count of true Freshmen on the list.  There are exactly 2; Jimmie Taylor at Defensive End, and Jarrod Hewitt at the nebulous position of Defensive Lineman.

This brings to mind another small label that attracts attention to itself, the Position listed as "DL", or Defensive Lineman.  It has been used before, but generally you see it in younger players who have relatively light experience.  They haven't been sorted into optimal positions, so the DL label is slapped on there to cover the general nature of their exposure.  So Hewitt being listed as such is not all that surprising.  What is, shall we say interesting, is that Vinny Mihota is still listed at a "DL" position.

That leaves 13 (Minus the two true Freshmen -€” assuming they'll be redshirted) players to cover the End (DE), Nose (DT), Tackle (DT), and Stud (DE) positions.  That is theoretically one more player than a complete three level depth chart.  So let's talk about each of the most experienced players, the guys who you would anticipate would be starting and playing most of the games this season.

Nigel Williams -€” (DT) redshirt Senior, Nigel played in all 13 games last season, but did not start.  He had a signature 2014 effort with an All ACC Honorable Mention, but his 2015 effort was nagged by various unattributed issues.  This season, Williams will need to step up to his 2014 level of play and actually work to exceed it.  The team and his squad need Senior leadership.

Ken Ekanem -€” (DE) redshirt Senior, Ekanem had a tough season in 2015.  He had nagging difficulties with various injuries, and never managed to break out into the dominant Defensive End that his 2014 Third Team All ACC effort suggested.   His season did improve slightly as his health improved, and this season he is looking to get back to the level for which he could attract NFL attention. Ekanem looks like he's stepping into the Senior Leader roll as well. He was a team player representative at the ACC media opener, and that means a great deal.

Woody Baron -€” (DT) true Senior, Woody started five times in 2015, nabbed 3 sacks in his 16 solo tackles.  He will need to keep building on his growth in 2015.   Coaches Foster and Wiles are going to be counting on every player in the "three Deep".  Baron has proven that he can start, look for his number this season.

Seth Dooley -€” redshirt Junior, Dooley played 24 games over the last two seasons, most of his work in 2014 was with Special Teams, he increased his Defensive Line snap count for 2015, and is looking to contribute more for the 2016 season.

Vinny Mihota -€” redshirt Sophomore, Vinny's first active season was more than a solid.  He even started a game.  By the end of 2015, he had accumulated four solo tackles one of which was a sack.  His game time was limited by his particular role and the Senior heavy configuration of the 2015 line, but his contribution made folks notice.  Mihota is one of those "tween" sorts of players, he's big enough to be a Defensive End, not optimal for the Defensive Tackle position, but as his DL position listing suggests, the coaches are still looking for a place where his impact will be the greatest.

Ricky Walker -€” redshirt Sophomore, Walker has just started his active career as a Hokie.  Last season he played in eleven games with a split between Special Teams and some line snaps.  He'll be looking to gain a spot on the depth chart that nets him more opportunities to excel.

That's the experienced front four that you would normally expect to see near the top of the charts, but the Hokies have some interesting newer talent at the Tackle position that will definitely be making a major impact this season.

Steve Sobczak -€” redshirt Sophomore, As a redshirt Freshman Sobczak played in six games and made his presence on the interior felt.  He has promise and as his experience increase, he'll be looked to for more contributions at one or either of the interior defensive line positions.

Tim Settle -€” redshirt Freshman, Settle is something a bit different for the Foster defensive system.  He's a size appropriate Nose Tackle and there are many (probably too many) hopes pinned on his future potential contribution to the defensive scheme.  If Tim can handle the two gap technique that is usually assigned to the Nose position, he will be able to control the interior of the line without linebacker support.  That frees up the Mike or Backer for other duties.  Tech has not had that sort of dominant interior lineman for a while.

Houshun Gaines -€” redshirt Freshman, Gaines got himself tangled up in some off field issues that resulted in a temporary suspension, and my guess would be some further disciplinary functions to be served.  He is big, but not overly so; and fits more into that ‘tween sort of definition between OLB in a 3-4 and a Speed Rush DE in a 4-2.  He needs to get his personal act together and avoid the behaviors that got him suspended before he can be counted on to be a major contributor.

The other players on the roster will be expected to step up big.  This list cannot be evaluated without seeing the numbers 2017 and 2018 floating off in the distance like that annoying thrum from a piece of heavy machinery just out of sight, but you can't shake the noise and vibration.  There are only three Senior Defensive Linemen this year, and that means the competition for slots and the need for playing time will hot and the experience virtually required.  There is little room to play favorites in this group.  Everyone is going to have to pull his weight, often above his head.

2016 Virginia Tech Hokie Defensive Line:

No.

Name

Exp.

Pos.

Height

Weight

Class

4

Ken Ekanem

3

DE

6' 3"

255

r-Sr.

43

Seth Dooley

2

DE

6' 6"

239

r-Jr.

11

Houshun Gaines

-

DE

6' 4"

231

r-Fr.

47

Darius Fullwood

-

DE

6' 4"

262

r-Fr.

94

Trevon Hill

-

DE

6' 5"

234

r-Fr.

96

Jimmie Taylor

-

DE

6' 3"

225

Fr.

99

Vinny Mihota

1

DL

6' 5"

270

r-So.

55

Jarrod Hewitt

-

DL

6' 1"

290

Fr.

95

Nigel Williams

3

DT

6' 4"

295

r-Sr.

60

Woody Baron

3

DT

6' 1"

275

Sr.

90

Dalton Roe

-

DT

6' 1"

235

r-Jr.

91

Steve Sobczak

-

DT

6' 1"

300

r-So.

98

Ricky Walker

1

DT

6' 2"

288

r-So.

51

Harry Lewis

-

DT

6' 0"

270

r-Fr.

97

Tim Settle

-

DT

6' 3"

344

r-Fr.

The operative word here is careful.   Hokie Nation needs to be careful about setting expectations, and certainly not put too much emotional pressure on new players doing new things.  There is a good deal of promise in this Defensive line.  There certainly is a solid experience sheet, though some of it was a bit on the garbage time snap side of things.  (Like we had a ton of garbage time last season, right?)

So, with the above list, here's where things might well stack up for the first depth chart cut.  I will dispense with the Stud/End and Nose/Tackle differentiations except for any notes.  Please be aware that left and right do actually change depending upon the on field formation and the need to balance the line from strong to weak side.

Defensive End

Defensive Tackle

Defensive Tackle

Defensive End

Ekanem

Williams

Baron

Dooley

Mihota/Fullwood

Walker/Settle

Sobczak/Settle

Mihota/Gaines

Fullwood

Settle/Walker

Settle/Sobczak

Gaines

There is no intent to leave out the other players on the line.  As their performances for the Fall practice session start to check in, we are sure that there will be some serious churn with this chart.   The Defensive Line is going to be critical this season.  We have a very inexperienced Defensive Backfield, and a linebacker corps that's been patched together with spit bailing wire and two experienced players performing above their heads, out of their natural positions.

The D-Line is going to have to take a major step up.  Control the gaps, and get natural pressure on the opposing quarterbacks without having to dial up blitzes that stress the coverage situation.  The Defense's success will ride on the Defensive Line's performance.  That's my prediction for this side of the ball in 2016.

Next up, the Linebackers.