The ACC Kickoff (aka media days) is fast approaching. I’ll be using the blog to count down to what we media members consider the unofficial start of the football season. This isn’t a list of the 25 best players on Virginia Tech’s roster. It’s a list of 25 things/people that will determine whether the Hokies’ 2012 season is a success or not. That includes players and coaches from both Virginia Tech and, occasionally, a few of its opponents.
No. 3: James Gayle, junior defensive end
There’s a pretty good football philosophy out there that outlines three keys to success: you must find a quarterback, you must protect the quarterback and you must find a way to pressure the quarterback.
Junior defensive end James Gayle could be Virginia Tech’s best bet for the last one.
The Hokies’ line is going to be strong this year. With everyone back from last year’s two-deep and even more players vying for reps beyond that, it’s as deep of a unit as the team has had in years. Defensive line coach Charley Wiles can basically rotate groups in like they’re hockey lines — four in, four out.
But depth will only take you so far. You need someone to be that elite pass rusher, able to wreak havoc in the other team’s backfield, disrupting the offense’s plans.
Gayle, a second-team All-ACC pick who led the team and was tied for sixth in the ACC with seven sacks last year, despite being limited by an ankle injury for a few games, has a good chance to make that leap.
The tools are there. He’s 6-foot-4, 267 pounds (up 17 from last year), and that extra size will no doubt come in handy when it comes to the more physical linemen he’ll face. But he’s an athlete too, turning heads at Virginia Tech’s timing day with a 39.5-inch vertical jump, a 400-pound bench press and 4.44-second time in the 40. Wiles, this offseason, said that of the Hokies’ linemen, Gayle probably scares quarterbacks the most. With measurables like that, it’s easy to see why.
That’s the kind of size and speed combination that you want out of your defensive end, and he’ll be made all the more effective by the other players on the line. He and J.R. Collins (29 QBH, 6 sacks, 9.5 TFL) give the Hokies a pair of fierce bookend pass rushers (and honestly, Collins could have just as easily have been somewhere on this countdown). The Hopkins brothers, Derrick and Antoine, plus Luther Maddy give them depth in the middle. And there are reserves behind all of them champing at the bit to get in the game.
Gayle’s health is the key. The ankle took him out of action for a few weeks last year and sapped his effectiveness. When back to full strength, however, he showed what he as capable of, particularly against Virginia, when he had five tackles, three TFLs, two sacks and three quarterback hurries working against touted right tackle Morgan Moses.
If the Hokies can get a bunch of games like that this year out of Gayle, you’re looking at a first-team All-ACC defensive end.
Coming Friday: He was once a top-five recruit in the state.
- No. 25: Randall Dunn, senior tight end
- No. 24: Donaldven Manning, freshman cornerback
- No. 23: Pick a punter
- No. 22: J.C. Coleman, freshman running back
- No. 21: Georgia Tech’s option offense
- No. 20: Antoine and Derrick Hopkins, defensive tackles
- No. 19: EJ Manuel, Florida State quarterback
- No. 18: Bud Foster, defensive coordinator
- No. 17: A fourth wide receiver
- No. 16: Cody Journell, junior kicker
- No. 15: Brent Benedict and David Wang, offensive guards
- No. 14: Dyrell Roberts, senior wide receiver
- No. 13: Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett, safeties
- No. 12: Dabo Swinney, Clemson head coach
- No. 11: Key reserves
- No. 10: Frank Beamer, head coach
- No. 9: Bruce Taylor and Tariq Edwards, inside linebackers
- No. 8: Marcus Davis, wide receiver
- No. 7: Beamerball
- No. 6: Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum, junior cornerbacks
- No. 5: Michael Holmes, redshirt freshman running back
- No. 4: Bryan Stinespring and Mike O’Cain, offensive coordinator/play-caller