The first words defensive end James Gayle uttered at Virginia Tech’s Tuesday news conference were almost an admission of guilt. A reporter wanted to know about a critique given by defensive line coach Charley Wiles: That Gayle’s biggest flaw last season was an inability to make in-game adjustments.
“To be honest, last year I didn’t know what I was doing, so I can understand why he says that,” Gayle said. “I didn’t know the signals. I didn’t know a lot of the plays.”
Over the offseason, though, something changed. The redshirt sophomore got the Hokies’ lone sack in the season-opening win over Appalachian State, continuing his emergence as Virginia Tech’s most dangerous, and consistent, playmaker along the defensive line.
During spring practice, Gayle had six sacks, including at least one in four of the team’s scrimmages. Then, last month, he exploded for four sacks in one preseason scrimmage.
Gayle said Tuesday the light bulb went on during the spring, when the defensive scheme finally became second nature. He also won the team’s Excalibur award for his work in the offseason strength and conditioning program, where he bench-pressed 420 pounds and ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash.
It’s important to note that Gayle, who’s now listed at 6 feet 4 and 257 pounds, has added close to 40 pounds onto his frame since arriving at Virginia Tech. Then again, the Hampton native has some good bloodlines, too.
His father, also named James Gayle, played running back for Ohio State (1979-82) and was named the 1981 Liberty Bowl most outstanding player. Gayle’s uncle, Shaun, also played at Ohio State and went on to have a 12-year career in the NFL, mostly as a safety for the Chicago Bears.
“I feel like they expected it,” the younger James Gayle said. “Even though I can tell my father is excited, I feel like he’s not surprised. Neither is . . . my uncle. He was telling me in 10th grade I was going to play college somewhere and I don’t even think I was really playing [then].”
Gayle’s surge really began in last year’s win over East Carolina when he got his first career start with Chris Drager limited by a knee injury. He didn’t register a tackle in that game, but the next week had a sack and three tackles for a loss in a 19-0 win over Boston College.
He also started in place of Drager in the Hokies’ win over North Carolina later in the season, notching two more sacks and six tackles.
East Carolina’s offense is designed to make it hard for a defense to generate much pass rush. Wiles said his film study of Pirates quarterback Dominique Davis revealed that he gets rid of the ball in under two seconds “all the time. He never holds it.”
Last year, the Hokies’ defense got pressure on Davis in the second half, especially once East Carolina fell behind. That’s when the Pirates were forced to throw it downfield more.
But the sheer amount of passes will make this a difficult proposition for the defensive line. Wiles said he expects to use an eight-man rotation, and it will test the Hokies’ depth.
At end, Virginia Tech’s top reserves are redshirt sophomores Zack McCray and Tyrel Wilson. True freshmen defensive tackles Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall will also inevitably see a handful of snaps because fatigue is bound to set in. Last year, for instance, East Carolina averaged more than 11 plays per touchdown drive against the Hokies.
Gayle seems unfazed by all this. He sounded confident Tuesday a time will come this weekend when Davis and East Carolina won’t be able to evade his grasp. With his recent track record, who can blame him?
“As long as we play defense like we can, we can get to the point where I’ll be able to be an effective pass rusher,” Gayle said. “I believe East Carolina is going to be a great test to see how good our defense is going to be this year. I feel like compared to game one, it’s a great jump.”