The junior practiced for the first time Tuesday evening, a little over three weeks after he met with head coach Frank Beamer to discuss his future with the program. No determination has been made for his status this weekend against East Carolina.
“The kid was pretty good,” defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. “He was on a different level than anybody else today. Know what I mean? Been gone for three weeks, whatever it’s been. So he was very, very active and fresh. Excited. Glad to be back.”
The 6-foot-1, 257-pound junior from North Dinwiddie has played 27 games in his Hokies career at both tackle and end, starting five times and making 39 tackles, six tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks.
In his absence, freshmen Woody Baron and Nigel Williams have served as the top backups to starters Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy at tackle, earning praise from both Wiles and coordinator Bud Foster. Williams has four tackles, 2.5. TFLs and a sack in two games. Baron has one tackle.
Marshall’s role will still be on the inside. He moved to tackle after spending most of last year at end, trying to give the Hokies more experience on the interior.
Even with defensive end Tyrel Wilson nursing a knee injury, Wiles is prepared to go forward with James Gayle, J.R. Collins and Dadi Nicolas as his primary ends against the Pirates.
“I want to play Dadi as much as possible,” Wiles said. “I’m going to play Dadi on both sides. He’s super active, explosive. Need to find more reps for him. …
“So you’ve really got three starters right there with those guys. They can all three rush the passer. They make plays in space. They suck up things out in the open.”
The Hokies also announced that redshirt freshman defensive tackle Alston Smith made the switch Tuesday to offensive line as a guard. The son of Hall of Famer and former Hokies great Bruce Smith had one tackle and a half tackle for loss this year on defense but was buried on the depth chart.
Now for a few more notes and quotes from Tuesday night, starting with some injury updates:
– Five significant players were in blue, limited jerseys Tuesday — Wilson (knee), RB J.C. Coleman (ankle), RG Andrew Miller (ankle), K Cody Journell (back spasms) and CB Antone Exum (knee).
Coleman’s ankle was still bothering him early in practice. He left to get it re-taped during the second period. Miller was mostly doing work on the side, and Journell’s blue jersey was precautionary.
Exum, who was in pads for the first time that we’ve seen, did some work with receivers, lining up next to them as though he was in coverage and going with them slowly as they came out of breaks, presumably to get used to making those kind of cuts, even at a slow speed.
Head athletic trainer Mike Goforth said there’s still no update on Exum’s recovery timetable. He said Dr. James Andrews was expected to watch some video of Exum working out on the field Tuesday in order to design a plan going forward.
Backup quarterback Mark Leal didn’t practice Tuesday because he had a wisdom tooth removed. He’ll still be ready for Saturday.
– East Carolina likes to play up-tempo. Wiles, in fact, said it is among the fastest teams Tech has played in terms of pace.
“I found it to be faster than some of the other teams that we’ve played,” he said.
Although the Pirates like to push the tempo, the stats don’t quite back that up. ECU run 70 plays a game this year and 72.4 per game last year. Clemson was up at 81.6 plays per game last season. Even North Carolina was at 74.8. (In fairness, in 2010, the first time a Ruffin McNeill-coached Pirates team played the Hokies, they ran 76.1 plays per game.)
Still, ECU likes to go quick and throw the ball all over the field, which will be a challenge for Tech’s d-linemen.
“They throw a lot of screens out there on the perimeter,” Wiles said, adding that getting off the field on third downs will be necessary to preserve energy. “We’re going to be running out there from inside around the ball to the numbers, getting in on tackles. So you can get blowed up.”
Because ECU likes to throw so many quick passes, it changes what Tech’s defensive ends will be asked to do on many plays.
“It’s definitely harder, but there’s ways you can affect the ball just by jumping, getting your hands up, trying to just disrupt the release,” Gayle said. “That’s actually something we were working on in practice today was getting up in tackling circuit.”
– Part of the problem with playing in Greenville is the heat and humidity, especially this time of year.
“To be honest, I don’t like going down there to play them, just because it’s hot and is so high-tempo,” Gayle said.
The weather gods must be on Tech’s side. The forecast has the temperature being 75 degrees in Greenville on Saturday.
“Thank the lord they have a cold front coming in,” Wiles said.
– Wiles told Beamer’s website that Derrick Hopkins is playing as well as any defensive tackle Virginia Tech has had. The senior was credited with eight assists against Western Carolina, although Wiles said he graded him out with three initial hits too.
“He’s just so instinctive in there,” Wiles said. “He knew by formation what they were doing. And he was just getting off blocks and getting in on a lot of plays. … So he was very active in that football game. Got a nice pass rush. He’s not a long bodied guy, so he’s at somewhat of a disadvantage. He’s a different style, but he’s really doing a nice job in there rushing the passer as well.”
– Gayle seems aware of the tough time East Carolina has given the Hokies every time they go down to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“I consider playing ECU like playing an ACC team,” he said, “because I think the last time we went down there was like [17-10]. They’re always ready to battle. They’re always into the game. I definitely have a lot of respect for their offense.”
– I’ll have more on Willie Byrn in a newspaper story that’s running Thursday (which will also include stuff on Kalvin Cline), but Byrn has earned the nickname “Paper Boy” from offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. As in, he always delivers. (Byrn jokingly said he insists he be called “Paper MAN.”)
“I said it beginning of camp. I said it the middle of camp,” receivers coach Aaron Moorehead said. “He’s the one guy who’s been consistent from Day 1. He’s done a great job.”
– Moorehead still did some post-practice JUGS machine work with receivers today, going a distance of 10 yards or so (not 10 feet, like I mistakenly wrote last week). He had it at 40 mph as a “prelim” but slowly cranked the speed up to 44 by the end of last week and early this week.
“I don’t want to get it too much higher than that,” he said. “For the most part, you’re not getting passes too much faster than about 45, 46 anyways. So I won’t go too much higher than that. I don’t think there’s a purpose. You don’t want anybody’s fingers broken or anything like that either. That’d be the worst-case scenario.
“So you keep it at a good speed where they’re getting good work and it’s more about the repetition of getting the different balls in different spots and getting comfortable not letting that ball getting into your body.”
– Plenty of good stuff from Moorehead about the receivers, which I’ll expand on tomorrow on the blog. But he said wide receiver D.J. Coles practiced “with a purpose” Tuesday. Part of that might be related to the fact that he only got a handful of snaps last week.
“It’s going to be something that moving forward is better for him to understand that whether or not you’re going to go into a game plan — understanding that we don’t need you,” Moorehead said. “We want to have you. But we don’t need you. And that’s something that’s an awakening for every athlete. When all of a sudden, it’s, ‘Oh my god. They’ll go on without me.’ That’ll get you in gear real quick. And I think that was good.”