Virginia Tech possesses one of the deepest defensive lines in the country this year, and on Thursday position coach Charley Wiles offered a glimpse into how that dynamic will play out throughout the season.
Wiles said the Hokies’ starting front four against Georgia Tech on Monday would likely consist of tackles Luther Maddy and Derrick Hopkins and ends Corey Marshall and Tyrel Wilson. That means three opening day starters from a year ago – ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins and tackle Antoine Hopkins – have been relegated to reserve roles.
Wilson and Marshall got the nod as a reward for strong training camps, and Maddy simply out-performed Hopkins. But Wiles expects this sort of competition to be the norm each week.
“Hop [Antoine Hopkins], he didn’t necessarily like that, but I said: ‘Well, here’s an opportunity this week to start against Austin Peay. And you go play better and you’ll start the next week,’ ” Wiles said. “That’s kind of how I like the room to be. I don’t want anybody to be comfortable with their playing time. I want them to compete on a day-to-day basis for everybody.”
The reason Gayle, a preseason all-ACC selection, will find himself on the sideline to begin Monday’s game is a balky ankle that forced him to sport a limited-contact jersey for more than two weeks during training camp. He did not participate in any of the team’s preseason scrimmages.
But he has been practicing this week, and told reporters Thursday that “If we played tomorrow, I’d be ready.” He’s still dealing with some soreness, though, and that worries Wiles.
“This ain’t going to be one of those games, man, that you can be tender,” he said.
But Wiles was also quick to point out that he still controls the rotation, and just because Gayle and Collins are starting doesn’t mean they won’t get plenty of snaps.
Gayle was a second-team all-ACC selection last year, finishing with a team-high seven sacks. Collins saw Marshall ascend to co-No. 1 on the depth chart when he was late to a meeting earlier in training camp, but he’s coming off a 2011 season in which he had more tackles (57) than any other Virginia Tech defensive lineman.
“Of course I don’t like it because I’d like to start, but I understand,” Gayle said. “I haven’t played the whole camp.”
Redshirt freshman Dadi Nicolas returned to practice Thursday after being reinstated to the program when a felony charge was reduced to a misdemeanor in court. Nicolas apologized to his teammates after being suspended during all of training camp.
Because Nicolas only played one year of high school football, all that missed work likely means he won’t figure into the defensive line depth chart this year.
“Unless we just got grenaded with injuries, I don’t see him fitting in,” Wiles said. “It’s going to take him a long time to get ready to play. I bet he thought we were speaking Chinese in there today when he came into the meeting. Just the verbiage and stuff, he’s not even close.”
Wiles added that Nicolas could play some special teams this season. Before his legal troubles, Nicolas was expected to compete with Wilson at defensive end.
“He made a mistake,” Wiles said. “I’m just very happy for him as a person that he’s not blown this opportunity.”