Virginia Tech defensive end James Gayle had heard Virginia right tackle Morgan Moses might not play in Saturday’s Commonwealth Cup. The two often engage in playful trash talk, dating from their days at rival high schools in the Hampton Roads area.
But earlier this week, Gayle wasn’t licking his chops about the potential of facing Moses’s replacement, redshirt freshman Jay Whitmire. Instead, he issued a challenge to Cavaliers left tackle Oday Aboushi, a future NFL draft pick.
“I’m hoping they move 72 to the other side, because that’s the guy I want to go against,” Gayle said, referring to Aboushi’s jersey number. “He’s just somebody I’d like to beat, to be honest.”
Alas, it appears Gayle might not get his wish after Moses was listed as probable on Virginia’s injury report Thursday. But the junior’s bravado is just one indication of the way the Hokies’ defense is feeling these days.
After entering the season with much fanfare, defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit is finally starting to deliver on that hype. Virginia Tech has 22 sacks over the past five games, a pace that, if replicated in every game this season, would leave the Hokies with the most sacks in the country.
They’ve done it with a blitz early and blitz often approach, cycling defensive linemen in and out of the lineup while bringing pressure with linebackers whenever possible. In the process, Foster has turned to his base package and eschewed the nickel more often in recent weeks.
Instead of playing a fifth defensive back, he has been able to use speedy linebacker Alonzo Tweedy in blitz packages. Tweedy has started the last two games and has two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss.
Foster also admits it helps that Virginia Tech has faced more traditional offenses in recent weeks after a slew of spread attacks in the middle of the year. But he can’t help but be impressed with the way the Hokies have managed to force opponents into plenty of third-and-long situations, which opens the door to his diverse blitz packages.
“We’ve got to be able to find ways to get our best players on the field to do what they do, and we’ve been able to do that,” Foster said. “I thought we could be good and I think we’re playing that way right now.”
Expect the same blitz-heavy approach Saturday against Virginia’s pro-style offense. Last year, the Hokies wreaked havoc on the Cavaliers offensive line, with Gayle leading the charge by sacking quarterback Michael Rocco two times going against Moses.
Creating pressure has also alleviated one of the defense’s weaknesses this year. Virginia Tech’s re-shuffled secondary has taken its fair share of licks, especially since Foster has taken such an aggressive tack of late. Cornerback Kyle Fuller has battled injuries all year and it has left him incapable of being the player that Foster proclaimed the team’s defensive MVP in 2011. He was beaten badly in last-second losses to Cincinnati and Florida State.
But redshirt junior Antone Exum has emerged as a lockdown option outside in Fuller’s place, and the development of safeties Kyshoen Jarrett has left Foster encouraged about next season. The Hokies will have just one senior in the starting lineup Saturday.
“It’s a lot for your mental part of your game to know you’re only going to have to cover somebody for three seconds instead of 10,” linebacker Jack Tyler said. “That goes a long way because you know you can match things up a little better. You know you have confidence in your d-line that they’re going to get after the quarterback all game.”