Inexperienced but bubbling with ability, the Virginia Tech defensive line seems to have absorbed coach Charley Wiles' windy definition of consistency: "Your best day and your worst day at this level had better not be very far apart."
Except for one play, a 46-yard run by West Virginia's quarterback, the overall defense is coming off as fine a performance as anyone could have expected as the Hokies prepare for their first-ever ACC road game Saturday against Wake Forest. The sixth-ranked Mountaineers had 13 third-down chances -- and didn't convert a single one. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster counted 26 mental errors the week before during a one-point loss to North Carolina State. There were only six in the 19-13 victory over West Virginia.
"I think the defensive line has been by far the most important part of our success," free safety Vincent Fuller said. "Not only as a defense but as a team."
The line was disciplined and disruptive against the misdirection West Virginia offered. And effective pressure on quarterbacks from the line in most games has allowed the linebackers and defensive backs to maintain safer pass coverage. As Foster puts it: "They don't give points for gaining five or six yards [on a pass reception] and stepping out of bounds."
Wiles was especially pleased that the Mountaineers had so few snaps, about 60 instead of the usual 85 or so generated by their no-huddle offense. As usual, he was intuitive about who substituted for starters Noland Burchette and Darryl Tapp at the ends and Jim Davis and Jonathan Lewis at the tackles.
Wiles' criteria for bringing in backups Carlton Powell and Kory Robertson at tackle and Chris Ellis and Jason Lallis at end is simple: "Who's making a play out there . . . I've never kept [a chart for when the backups should play], but it seems to work out when I grade the films and see the number of plays.
"Powell might have been a little hot [against West Virginia], so I went with him a little bit more."
The starters have been very good all season. Lewis, 6 feet 1 and 300 pounds, was outstanding against West Virginia, with seven tackles in what Wiles said was his best game at Tech. Lewis started the final three games as a freshman two years ago and all 13 last season.
"That's the guy we recruited," Wiles said, "that bell-cow, big-time tackle."
It has not taken long for Burchette and Tapp to blow away doubts about replacing Nathanial Adibi and Cols Colas. And the redshirt freshmen -- Ellis, Powell and Robertson -- keep improving.
"I think the line's playing 10 times better than last year," linebacker Mikal Baaqee said. "They're not as experienced but they're probably hungrier."
"We got a chip on our shoulder," Lewis said. "We got a lot of things to prove."
The past two years, opponents ran well against Tech and frequently pulled off huge gains on pass plays when that was necessary. The run defense this season has been stingy, averaging 3.4 yards. But Southern Cal's versatile Reggie Bush, who might well be the best college player in the country, had three relatively long touchdown catches. The two N.C. State touchdowns were on "drives" of 34 and five yards after errors by the offense and special teams.
Davis has given the defensive line leadership and NFL ability after missing all of last season because of a torn pectoral muscle, and Tapp's motor seems never to idle.
"Darryl right now is playing as well as anyone," Wiles said. "He practices [at full speed], goes to school that way and even eats that way. He's an everyday guy in a tight unit."
The unit stays close off the field, opting not for the relatively fancy steakhouses for dinner but the buffet line at a fast-food chicken place.
"Crackin' jokes and laughing," Davis said. "Always got something nice to say about each other. . . . I think we're finally understanding each other's goals. In most teams you always have one person who wants more [recognition]. I think everybody's on the same eye level right now. Pretty much everybody on the [unit] gets a run. It's cool."