Hokies cornerback Antone Exum wasn’t alone this preseason in thinking this year’s defense had the potential to be one of the best Bud Foster has ever coached, a thought that seems laughable in hindsight considering Virginia Tech’s depth concerns and offseason position changes.
After a season of growing pains, the junior chose his words more carefully last week, but he still didn’t hide his enthusiasm about Virginia Tech’s defense in 2013.
“I’m excited. We voice it all the time. We should be pretty good,” Exum said. “We don’t want to jump to conclusions or anything too early, because we thought that was where it was going this year. But next year, we definitely have the pieces to be a dominating defense.”
Virginia Tech’s high defensive potential was a hot story in the preseason — including from this publication — although it ignored several red flags that would pop up in the first few months. The position switches the Hokies made in the secondary, a lack of depth on the back end and an injury to Tariq Edwards that ate at linebacker depth and forced Bruce Taylor to play out of position all effected Tech out of the gate.
Those issues combined with uncharacteristic missed tackles and lost leverage led to the Hokies allowing 495 yards or more in losses to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and North Carolina.
“Obviously, you hate to have growing pains, but we did [have them], especially on the perimeter,” Foster said. “And that was the discouraging part of the season, because I thought we could have stepped in. You always kind of feel like you can plug people in and you can be able to keep going, but obviously that doesn’t work the way you want it to.”
“We didn’t expect that at all,” Exum said. “But you can’t do anything about it once it’s done and we just tried to learn from each game.”
Virginia Tech did. Over the final six games, it allowed 299.2 yards per game, which would have ranked ninth nationally if stretched across an entire season. The Hokies got more sacks and forced more turnovers as players settled into new roles.
“And we didn’t give up as many big plays down the stretch,” Foster said. “And the big plays were kind of our nemesis, and some of that with some technique, obviously from a coverage standpoint. But you go back early on, especially in some early games, just some lost leverages, which are base fundamentals, we improved on. And I think that’s where we improved down the stretch. And proud of the kids from that standpoint.”
Here’s a look at the Hokies’ first four games against major conference teams (Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, North Carolina) versus their last six (Duke, Clemson, Miami, Florida State, Boston College, Virginia):
- First four: 438.3 ypg, 15 touchdowns allowed, 5 sacks, 5 turnovers forced, 31.8 ppg
- Last six: 299.3 ypg, 14 touchdowns allowed, 24 sacks, 10 turnovers forced, 25.5 ppg
A strong showing in the Russell Athletic Bowl against a Rutgers offense that’s far from explosive could send the Hokies into the offseason on a high note.
If defensive end James Gayle and Exum return for their senior years, Tech would have nine returning starters in 2013. Of those departing, only Taylor was entrenched as a starter all year, and he figures to be replaced by Edwards, a starter from 2011 who missed almost all of this season with a knee/shin injury.
The other seniors, defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins and whip linebackers Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and Alonzo Tweedy, were solid contributors but hardly irreplaceable. Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy started most of the year at tackle, while redshirt freshman Ronny Vandyke has long been proclaimed the future at the whip.
In the secondary, Foster thinks the moves Tech made last offseason — Exum to corner and Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett to safety — will pay off more next year, now that the group has had time to adjust to their new roles. Another signing class will bolster the depleted reserves on the back end. It includes five-star cornerback Kendall Fuller, who could play in the same defensive backfield of his brother, Kyle Fuller.
It gives the Hokies plenty of hope heading into 2013, although Exum knows that talk is cheap.
“This year proved that just because that’s what it looked like on paper, that’s not how it’s going to have to go,” Exum said. “You’re going to have to go out there and prove that you’re worth that and prove that you’re that play-maker that’s on paper.”