Every week, Virginia Tech defensive end J.R. Collins will watch film of the Hokies’ upcoming opponent, looking for little flaws in the blocking techniques of the left tackle he’s about to face.
Last week at Wake Forest, for instance, Collins noticed redshirt senior Dennis Godfrey was bad at moving his feet, especially in passing situations. Collins then decided the best strategy for the day would be to simply utilize his speed advantage.
“But I didn’t get too much one-on-one,” Collins said. “I got double-teamed a lot, so the moves I had weren’t working as much.”
That Collins still finished with three tackles, including one for a loss, and split a sack with linebacker Bruce Taylor highlights the situation Virginia Tech’s injury-depleted defensive line finds themselves in these days. With two key cogs out for the season because of knee injuries and another battling an ankle sprain (defensive end James Gayle), the Hokies’ two remaining opening day defensive line starters – Collins and sophomore defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins – are being asked to do more than anyone ever expected before the season began.
“We need those guys to be playmakers,” defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. “They don’t need to be just solid. They need to step up and make some plays.”
So far, the two first-year starters have answered the bell. Collins leads the team with six sacks and 11 quarterback hurries, and has the most tackles out of all the defensive linemen (27). Defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who recruited Collins out of Brooke Point High in Stafford, said the 6-foot-2, 240-pound redshirt sophomore has been “relentless” whether it’s rushing the passer or chasing the ball sideline-to-sideline.
Hopkins has more solo tackles (14) than any other defensive lineman and has proven adept at clogging the middle against the run and rushing the passer when necessary. Though he’s gotten just two sacks, Hopkins has eight quarterback hurries to his credit.
“I was hoping they’d play about like this, to be honest with you,” Foster said. “I think both those kids are good leaders, role models, whatever you want to say, for those young players. Even though they’re young players, they play at a high level and they have a sense of urgency about them.”
Both said this week they haven’t looked back and thought about just how good this defensive line could’ve been had it remained healthy throughout the year. But it’s worth noting that through five games this year, the Hokies’ starting defensive line combined for 10 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. But Antoine Hopkins tore his ACL in the fourth quarter against Clemson and Gayle went down with an ankle injury during the first drive of the Miami game.
That Hopkins and Collins can forge on without asking what if stems partly from the fact that neither came to Virginia Tech with lofty credentials. Though Collins had scholarship offers from eight Football Bowl Subdivision schools, the Stafford native was just an honorable mention All-Met during his senior year. He joked Tuesday that he wasn’t even sure if he attained all-league status (for the record, Collins was first team all-Northwest Region in 2008).
Hopkins, meanwhile, only had a scholarship offer from Virginia Tech. So it should come as no surprise that even though defensive line fill ins like freshmen tackles Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall and defensive end Tyrel Wilson are seeing the first extensive playing time of their careers, Hopkins is not worried.
“I trust the other guys so I just go out and play my game,” he said. “I thought I’d have [senior] Kwamaine [Battle] and my brother with me but now they’re out. … With our scheme and the players we’ve got, if somebody comes out the next person up is still good. Everything still flows.”
Speaking of Maddy, Marshall and Wilson, Hopkins said the most interesting dynamic along the defensive line right now is that he and Collins are “still new ourselves so we’re still learning at the same time they are.”
Wiles said this week both Maddy and Marshall took encouraging steps forward at Wake Forest. Maddy needs to work on his stamina – Wiles said he’s not comfortable playing him for more than seven plays at a time right now – while Marshall must get better at the point of attack to compensate for his 256-pound frame.
“I know they have playmaking ability,” Wiles said of the freshmen. “That’s why we put them where we put them at the very beginning of this process.”
Wilson actually left Saturday’s game late after his kneecap “came out, then came back in” during the fourth quarter, according to Wiles. He was replaced by redshirt freshmen Zack McCray and Duan Perez-Means, but the injury hasn’t affected Wilson in practice this week.
But no matter who plays Saturday, don’t expect Collins or Hopkins to slow down one bit.
“You got to move on,” Collins said. “The best we can do is help coach up the younger guys and there’s a sense of urgency in coaching them up because they’re new.”