Virginia Tech wrapped up spring practice on April 20, although questions remain heading into the summer that won’t have more definitive answers until fall camp. Nevertheless, the spring cleared up some things. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be taking a look back at what the Hokies figured out and what remains a work in progress.
– DE: James Gayle, Sr. (starter), Tyrel Wilson, Sr.
– DT: Luther Maddy, Jr. (starter), Alston Smith, r-Fr.
– DT: Derrick Hopkins, Sr. (starter), Woody Baron, Fr.
– DE: J.R. Collins, Sr. or Dadi Nicolas, So.
This group, particularly the first team, performed about as well as anybody could have expected this spring. With veterans across the front, the Hokies got work in for their established players while bringing the younger class along as well. Gayle was the defensive MVP this spring, abusing offensive tackles in scrimmages and setting himself up for a potentially huge senior season. Collins had a renewed focus and attitude, something that coaches said made him look like a new player. Maddy earned recognition for having an exceptional spring, pairing with Hopkins in a formidable tackle duo. A few young guys emerged, including redshirt freshman Ken Ekanem, who looked good in the spring game and is poised for a bright future, even if reps are scarce this year. But it was Nicolas who probably made the biggest strides, emerging as not only an impact player, but potentially as a starter at end, a luxury for what is the deepest group on the team.
There’s not a lot of tackle depth. Behind Hopkins and Maddy, it gets dicey. Kris Harley and Nigel Williams started the spring as the top backups but finished behind Baron and Smith, per defensive line coach Charley Wiles‘ post-spring comments on Frank Beamer‘s website (although the real gap is behind the starters and the backups). That’s especially disappointing about Harley, who showed flashes last year but still hasn’t quite put everything together and played with any kind of consistency. Wiles had hoped the redshirt sophomore would start to take off this spring. It was mostly a lost spring for Wilson, who was limited by a foot injury.
HELP ON THE WAY
Wyatt Teller is the only defensive linemen in the class, and he’s a good one. But even a top-notch recruit would have trouble cracking this defensive line rotation. It sounds like Teller will being as an end, where Tech has the most depth on the team. Gayle, Collins, Nicolas and Wilson are all potential starters, and that’s not even mentioning Corey Marshall or Ekanem. Teller might be a true talent, but unless he moves to tackle or another position, it’d be surprising to see him on the field this year in anything other than special teams.
While a slimmed-down, refocused Collins has a chance to regain his 2011 form, I don’t think there’s any other answer here than Nicolas. Set back last year following his offseason arrest for stealing a bike, coaches didn’t have high expectations for him last year. But he made plays whenever he was in the game, getting more playing time as t he season went on. That continued in the spring, where he was in the backfield consistently during scrimmages. Wiles is a production guy, so if someone isn’t giving him any, he’s not afraid to turn elsewhere. Nicolas is hard to ignore in that sense. He won’t supplant Gayle, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him start (or co-start) at the other end spot with Collins come fall.
BATTLE TO WATCH
The battle that will be in the spotlight more will be at defensive end, where Nicolas, Collins and Wilson are vying for reps, but given the depth there, that’s not nearly as important as the backup tackle spots. Tech know Hopkins and Maddy can’t play 70 snaps a game (or at least be effective doing so). That’s why the Baron, Smith, Harley, Williams and Jarontay Jones need to step up their games. The Hokies have slid guys inside before (Collins and Marshall have done it), but it didn’t work very well. Wiles doesn’t sound like he wants to do that this year but he might be forced to if backups don’t emerge.
THEY SAID IT
“The good thing right now with Gayle, to me last year, obviously junior year, are you coming out? All that crap. We don’t have that crap this year. He’s very focused and determined. He made the decision to stay in school, so he’s very focused, and I think he realizes this is a special opportunity, so his mind is really tight right now.” — Wiles
This is undoubtedly the strength of the team. The Hokies have play-makers and, save for tackle, pretty good depth. It’s no coincidence that Tech’s defense started to excel last year when the defensive line started pulling its weight. It lost Antoine Hopkins to graduation but otherwise returns everyone else, setting expectations high for this year. Gayle and Collins have been All-ACC performers in the past, while Hopkins, Maddy and Nicolas seem like they have that potential. Tackle depth will continue to be a concern until a) a younger player steps up or b) the Hokies shift one of their ends inside, but when your primary worry is about your backups, that’s generally a good sign. Alabama lost three All-Americans on its offensive line, and while the Crimson Tide simply reloads with highly-touted replacements, Tech’s best bet against the Crimson Tide is to get a monster game out of its d-line. The talent is there. Now it’s a matter of producing.