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Hokies’ defense earns net dividends with Taylor-Tyler switch

By Mark Giannotto,

BLACKSBURG, Va. — If Virginia Tech linebacker Jack Tyler weren’t such close friends with teammate Bruce Taylor, he might be inclined to think the daily barbs that came his way were out of jealousy.

After all, before Tyler finished with a team-high 112 tackles and earned first-team all-ACC honors from the league’s coaches this season, it was Taylor, a senior chasing his NFL dreams, who moved to a new position to make room for him in the starting lineup.

Following every big hit or savvy play, Tyler could count on Taylor’s voice in his ear with a familiar refrain: “You’re stealing my money.”

The two linebackers — Tyler played mike linebacker and Taylor manned the backer position — became interchangeable constants for a Hokies defense that underachieved early on under the weight of considerable preseason hype, but came on strong in the latter portions of the season.

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster credits Taylor’s vocal leadership with engineering the turnaround, and the coach has already spoken with Tyler privately about transitioning into that role ahead of Virginia Tech’s matchup against Rutgers in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Friday. Foster even referred to Tyler as “the face” of next year’s defense earlier this month. But just like on the field, Taylor’s shadow will loom large.

“Bruce knows that him switching to backer was what was best for the team and he knew going in that maybe his tackle numbers weren’t gonna be as high,” Tyler said. “I’m just trying to change my ways to step into Bruce’s shoes and take over for him and carry this defense on and carry the torch.”

Indeed, it was Taylor who sacrificed statistics once it became clear last year’s starting backer, redshirt junior Tariq Edwards, would not return to full health this season due to a lingering knee/shin injury. In Foster’s defensive scheme, ball carriers are funneled to the mike (or middle) linebacker, while the backer is involved in more blitzes off the edge.

The 6-foot-2, 244-pound Taylor thrived at mike linebacker in 2010, leading the team with 91 tackles and earning second team all-ACC honors. He had a team-high 53 tackles through eight games last year before suffering a season-ending Lisfranc injury to his foot.

Foster insists before the injury, Taylor was “as good a linebacker in our conference as there was.” That he was still recovering from the ailment during training camp and the first few weeks of the regular season, while also trying to convince NFL scouts that he hadn’t lost a step, made his willingness to change positions even more endearing to coaches and teammates.

This year at backer, Taylor had 65 tackles and a team-high 5.5 sacks.

“I’ve had family tell me that I look a little slow, like I was limping a bit those first couple games. But it was just a thing of trusting [the foot],” Taylor said. “Once I was able to trust it and know that it was fully healed, I feel like I returned to how I used to play. It was just a little different this year for me, just being at a different position, in a different role.”

Proving the doubters wrong is nothing new for Tyler. He had just one Football Bowl Subdivision scholarship offer (from Buffalo) as an All-Met out of Oakton High in 2008, but has quickly moved his way up the food chain at Virginia Tech. The past two seasons, he filled in ably when Taylor was hurt and showed any remaining skeptics just how wrong recruiters were during a breakout 2012 campaign.

Though he’s smaller (6-1, 236 pounds) and slower than the typical ACC linebacker, Tyler makes up for it with preternatural skills reading offenses that create what Foster calls “a first step that is so much faster than everybody else’s.” But frequently, Tyler would just think about Taylor for inspiration this year.

“I told myself, ‘I need to be an all-ACC linebacker or we just got worse at the position.’ That was kind of my motivation all year. I needed to be as good as him, or better,” said Tyler, who had at least seven tackles in every game this season.

That, though, wasn’t enough to prevent Virginia Tech’s worst season in 20 years, a distinction that weighs heavily on Taylor these days. The owner of the well-known Lunch Pail that defines Foster’s blue-collar approach to defense, Taylor admits he “internalized a lot of stuff that was going on with the team and took it as my fault.”

But at least he could always count on Tyler for a good laugh.

“I mess with him all the time because he’s getting all the love now that I used to get when I was at mike,” Taylor said. “It’s all good. I know it all works in the scheme of the defense and everyone has a role. That’s his role this year. Playmaker.”

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