When Virginia Tech ended its practice on a chilly Wednesday night in Blacksburg with a 66-play scrimmage closed to fans and reporters, the offensive numbers were not nearly as ugly as Saturday’s affair dominated by the defense in front of the public at Lane Stadium.
Quarterback Logan Thomas completed 7 of 13 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown, and running back Michael Holmes (five carries, 25 yards) and wide receiver Demetri Knowles (two catches, 64 yards and a touchdown) were singled out for praise by Coach Frank Beamer. But one figure continued to stand out above any other.
The Hokies allowed 10 sacks to up the defense’s total to 21 in the past 151 plays of live action following an 11-sack performance Saturday, a statistic made more impressive (or foreboding) when one remembers that Virginia Tech is currently practicing without all three of its opening-day starters at linebacker.
Once again the Hokies’ defensive line, a unit that is quickly becoming the star of this year’s spring practice and creating concerns for a revamped offensive line at the same time, was responsible for much of the damage. On Wednesday, Virginia Tech’s front four combined for 19 tackles, including 10 for a loss and eight sacks, and starting defensive ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins weren’t even playing because of a class conflict.
But at this point, “front four” doesn’t really do this group justice. Just a few months after depth was a major issue for the Hokies, defensive line coach Charley Wiles returns all four starters from last season and is now invoking the Super Bowl champion New York Giants when he discusses a unit that suddenly goes eight or nine deep.
“It’s a grind. Every spot, you’ve got serious competition in,” sophomore defensive tackle Corey Marshall said. “There’s no one spot where any guy can just say: ‘I’m good here. I can stop. I’ve arrived.’ I mean we’re competing every day.”
This, though, has been Wiles’s hope all along. He wants a defensive line without much drop off in the two-deep chart so he can substitute freely and keep players fresh. Last year, for instance, Wiles felt he was forced to play defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins too much because the Hokies had no depth when his brother, Antoine Hopkins, and senior Kwamaine Battle were lost for the season early on due to knee injuries.
This spring, Wiles has been talking about the Giants’ dominant defensive line with his players, because it seems Coach Tom Coughlin’s bunch have become the prototype for the modern front four. Since 2007, the Giants have finished outside the top seven in the NFL in sacks just once and had the third-most in the league last season when they won the Super Bowl.
“You look at them, they’re playing with four defensive ends,” Wiles said. “The game anymore, you look at what everybody is doing on offense, you see a little bit of quarterback under center, you see a whole lot of spread to run the ball. You need athletes that can make plays numbers to numbers, sideline to sideline and be able to run.”
“We’re trying to get our best, fastest guys and put them in position on the field where we can really maximize our personnel.”
To accomplish that, Wiles has been experimenting by rotating his plethora of defensive ends inside this spring. Redshirt junior Zack McCray, freshman Justin Taylor and Marshall have all played both end and tackle the past two weeks in hopes of securing more snaps this fall.
It will, however, be interesting to see how playing time works out along the defensive line, which combined for 38.5 tackles for a loss and 22.5 sacks last season. The Hokies lost just 2.5 sacks from a year ago and on top of all four opening-day starters returning (Gayle, Collins and the Hopkins brothers), defensive tackle Luther Maddy will likely challenge for a starting spot at tackle in fall training camp when Antoine Hopkins returns to full strength, Wiles said.
Defensive end Tyrel Wilson, Marshall and McCray have all also shown improvement after getting significant reps due to injury last season and are itching to move up the depth chart. Throw in redshirt freshman defensive tackle Kris Harley, one of the more highly touted recruits from the 2011 recruiting class, and defensive end Dadi Nicolas, a raw talent with off-the-charts athleticism, and it’s easy to see why Wiles’s gang is making life difficult for an unseasoned offensive line so far.
But there’s no such thing as an embarrassment of riches along the defensive line, and with a thin secondary, the Hokies will need a ferocious front if they hope to become an elite defense.
Virginia Tech finished last season ranked sixth in the country, and tied with Florida State for first in the ACC, with 41 sacks. The Hokies were also among the top 15 in rushing defense at end of the year. It seems anything less than that would be a letdown for Wiles considering the sheer amount of talent at his disposal right now.
“We need to be better,” Wiles said. “I’ll be disappointed if we’re not and I’ll be disappointed if we don’t have eight or nine guys and we can roll guys and keep guys fresh.”
Statistics from Wednesday’s scrimmage
PASSING – Thomas 7-13, 90 yards, 1 TD; Trey Gresh 5-11. 71 yards, 1 TD; Brian Rody 3-4, 60 yards
RUSHING – Holmes 5-25; Dyrell Roberts 3-18; Martin Scales 4-15; Knowles 2-6, 1 TD; Thomas 4-3; Byrn 1-5; Coleman 6-0
RECEIVING – Corey Fuller 3-56, 1 TD; Knowles 2-64, 1 TD; Duan Perez-Means 1-25; Ryan Malleck 1-15; Martin 1-23; Holmes 1-9; Mellstrom 1-7; Roberts 1-6
PUNTING – Branthover 2-62; Keyserling 1-30
FIELD GOALS – Branthover 42 good, 43 no good; Goulding 39 good
DEFENSIVE STANDOUTS – Ronny Vandyke 5 tackles, 1 sack, 1 QB hurry; Matt Roth 5 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 sack; Chase Williams 4 tackles; Derrick Hopkins 3 tackles, 2 sacks; Brian Laiti 3 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 QB hurry; Jack Tyler 3 tackles, 1 TFL; Tyrel Wilson 3 tackles, 1 sack; Boye Aromire 3 tackles; Zack McCray 2 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 sack; Luther Maddy 2 tackles, 1 sack; Kris Harley 2 tackles, 1 sack; Donaldven Manning 2 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 QB hurry; DeWayne Alford 1 sack