Virginia Tech’s spring practice is fast approaching, with drills beginning March 27. To prepare you for what should be a highly-anticipated spring session, I’ll be breaking down the Hokies by position groups over the next week and a half.
Read the previous installments by clicking on the links: quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends and offensive line. Today, we’ll move to the defense, starting with the deepest group on the team, the defensive line.
The 2012 numbers
– Derrick Hopkins, 51 tackles, 10 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 7 QBH, 1 FF
– James Gayle, 43 tackles, 11 TFL, 5 sacks, 27 QBH
– Luther Maddy, 35 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 13 QBH
– J.R. Collins, 31 tackles, 6 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 20 QBH
– Tyrel Wilson, 27 tackles, 7 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 8 QBH, 1 FF
– Corey Marshall, 26 tackles, 3 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 12 QBH
– Dadi Nicolas, 17 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 4 QBH, 1 FF
– Antoine Hopkins, 13 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 QBH
– Matt Roth, 7 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 1 FF
– Kris Harley, 6 tackles, 1 INT, 3 QBH
– Zack McCray, 3 tackles
– A. Hopkins
– McCray (to offense)
– Derrick Hopkins, Sr.
– Luther Maddy, Jr.
– Kris Harley, r-So.
– Ross Ward, r-So. (walk-on)
– Alston Smith, r-Fr.
– Nigel Williams, r-Fr.
– Woody Baron, Fr.
– J.R. Collins, r-Sr.
– James Gayle, r-Sr.
– Tyrel Wilson, r-Sr.
– Corey Marshall, Jr.
– Dadi Nicolas, r-So.
– Matt Roth, r-So.
– Justin Taylor, r-So.
– Dewayne Alford, r-Fr.
– Ken Ekanem, r-Fr.
– Jarontay Jones, r-Fr.
– Jeremy Haynes, r-Fr. (walk-on)
– Seth Dooley, Fr.
– Wyatt Teller, Fr.
Will Hokies fans see the dominating group that showed up in the second half of last season for an entire year?
The star attraction
There are plenty of players to pick from, with Hopkins and Maddy poised to form a formidable duo in the middle, but let’s go with Gayle. The rising senior and two-time second-team All-ACC pick, opted to come back for his senior season instead of entering the NFL. Although he’s Virginia Tech’s top pass rusher, he’s never had a huge season in sacks. He had seven in 2011, then fell back to five last year, although he upped his quarterback hurries from 20 to 27. He’ll need a season where he stays healthy and posts a double-digit sack number (his goal last year) to truly be satisfied. He still appears to be a weight room standout, putting up 370 pounds in the power clean, a lineman record. If he can carry those physical skills over to the field, he could have a special senior season.
With Gayle, Hopkins and Maddy pretty secure in their spots, that leaves the other defensive end spot as the starting job up for grabs. It was Collins’ at the start of last year, but he had only so-so production, opening things up. Marshall stepped in some but didn’t do a whole lot better. Wilson moved over from being Gayle’s backup and had a strong year, particularly early. Later in the year, Nicolas began to get more playing time, making plays seemingly every time he was on the field, even in limited action. Any one of those four could start, making for what should be a competitive spring.
Beyond the starters, there should be a fierce competition for playing time. This is the deepest group on the roster, so much so that Ekanem, one of the highest-rated recruits in 2012, could have a hard time making the playing rotation at end.As much as any coach on the roster, Charley Wiles treats his group as a meritocracy, giving reps to those who are performing the best on a regular basis, so there’s room for a younger player to make an impression if he performs. But it’s a tough crowd to crack this year, given the group’s depth.
The new guys
The only new linemen the Hokies signed out of high school last year was Teller, although he’s a good one, regarded as a top-100 recruit by some services. Tech says it will start him out as a defensive end, although it’s a crowded field there. From what coaches have said, he has a relentless motor. That’s exactly the kind of player Tech could use on the line, although given the group’s depth, it’d be surprising if it was this year. Baron and Dooley both enter the mix as well after delaying their initial enrollment once they signed in February of 2012.
The wild card
It’s Nicolas. The coaches didn’t have high expectations for him last year after his offseason arrest and brief suspension. Wiles offered his famous, “I bet he thought we were speaking Chinese in there today when he came into the meeting” quote about Nicolas coming back after missing so much time. But Nicolas made the most of his extremely limited reps. Consider this: he played 123 defensive snaps last year and had 17 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks. Extrapolate that to Gayle’s playing time (601 snaps) and that would be 81 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks. Now, football doesn’t work that way — and Nicolas racked up a lot of those numbers against second- or third-teamers — but it gives you an idea of the tremendous potential he has (if football had a PER rating like basketball, Nicolas’ would be very high). With his football IQ starting to catch up to his athletic ability (he jumped 40 inches in offseason workouts) he has all the makings of someone who could be a special defender if he puts it all together.
The Hokies had 27 sacks in the final seven games, an average of 3.86 per game. If they had averaged that over the season, it would have put them third nationally behind Stanford (4.07) and Arizona State (4.00). Tech finished tied for 19th in sacks, with 2.69 per game.