As Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster spoke with reporters Monday evening, hours after the latest injury-related setback to beset his unit, he tried to think of another year in which the Hokies have seen this many players go down at once.
He couldn’t remember one, and in the process of considering the possibility, he made the analogy that the players Virginia Tech’s defense has lost this season would be the equivalent of recent Hokies basketball teams playing without Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen.
But even though middle linebacker Bruce Taylor became the third opening day defensive starter to succumb to a season-ending injury this past week against Boston College, Foster hadn’t missed a beat. Though he’s not entirely sure how he’ll replace Taylor, who was having “an all-star-type season,” according to Foster, he has already begun considering what adjustments he’ll have to make to his own play-calling and how he’ll deploy Taylor’s replacements, redshirt senior Barquell Rivers and redshirt sophomore Jack Tyler.
“We’ve won a championship with both those guys, and they played in big games for us,” said Foster, whose unit still ranks 13th in the country in total defense this year. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in them, and I told that to the defense this morning and to the team this afternoon.”
Rivers, of course, started all 13 games at middle linebacker in 2009, finishing the season as the team’s second-leading tackler. But he also started as a freshman in Virginia Tech’s Orange Bowl victory over Cincinnati in 2008. Tyler replaced an injured Taylor in last year’s ACC championship game, and then started in last year’s Orange Bowl loss to Stanford.
Foster said he hasn’t decided how much each linebacker will play Saturday at Duke because it all depends on what sort of game shape Rivers is in. Before coming in for 17 plays when Taylor went down with his injury midway through the third quarter, Rivers hadn’t played an extensive amount of meaningful snaps since the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl because of the devastating quad injury he suffered in the spring of 2010.
Tyler said he’s certain Rivers will get the start on Saturday because “he knows the system probably the best out of anybody on this team.” But Tyler also had a quiet confidence to him, something borne from playing in those two big games last year.
“It’s not our first football game, so we kind of know what we’re doing,” he said.
“If any position could afford an injury, it’s the linebacker position on defense because we’re so deep at linebacker,” said Taylor, wearing a boot on his right foot during Monday’s practice. “The guys behind me, they can be starters at other schools. This injury, it sucks for me more than I feel like it does the team.”
It also sounds as if the Hokies will get both defensive end James Gayle and cornerback Jayron Hosley back from injuries this weekend. Gayle said he re-aggravated his left ankle sprain during warmups before the Boston College game, but was running better than ever during Monday’s practice. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m gonna play,” he said.
Hosley sat out Saturday’s game with a strained left hamstring, but said he went full speed in Monday’s practice and didn’t experience any setbacks. The swelling has gone down, Hosley added, and “it’s looking very good that I’m gonna be playing.” He did, however, say that he wanted to make sure nothing happened to the injury during practice this week.
Hosley is of particular importance because of the schematic changes Foster is considering due to the mounting injuries. Redshirt junior Alonzo Tweedy, the team’s starter at whip linebacker because of Jeron Gouveia-Winslow’s season-ending foot injury, missed Monday’s practice with a high ankle sprain.
Tweedy’s status for Saturday’s game is up in the air, and Foster is still a bit uneasy relying heavily on redshirt freshman Nick Dew, who was “all over in the place” in a bad way when he relieved Tweedy against Boston College.
Foster said Monday he’ll probably use his nickel package more frequently, with cornerback Kyle Fuller serving as the de facto whip linebacker and redshirt senior Cris Hill entering the game as a cornerback. Foster even mentioned the possibility of moving redshirt sophomore Telvion Clark over to whip linebacker if Tweedy is out for an extended period of time.
The good news is that the Hokies would have likely played a lot of nickel at Duke regardless of what injuries they had. The Blue Devils are third in the ACC this year, averaging close to 287 passing yards per game. With so much in flux defensively, though, Foster isn’t sure if he’ll be able to make the same aggressive play calls that have made his unit so successful this year
“I want to keep doing our stuff, but at the same time we’ve got to be smart and make sure we can do what we do and play it well,” he said. “It’s fun from a teaching and coaching standpoint. From the pressures to win, it makes it harder because you’re not playing with a full deck.”
Then again, Foster has been preaching about depth since training camp began this summer, and so far, his replacement players have risen to the occasion. That challenge, though, got a little bit tougher this week.
“We’re kind of a resilient group right now. We were last year, and I think last year kind of showed you hang in there for 60 minutes, good things will happen,” Foster said. “That’s what we’re banking on right now. We’ll have them ready to play and they’ll play hard and they’ve got to perform. They can’t just play; they need to perform.”