It took just more than a week of spring practice for Virginia Tech to lose two of its three starting linebackers from the Orange Bowl to injury. Meanwhile, at the onset of the spring, Coach Frank Beamer announced Lyndell Gibson, a starting linebacker a year ago, would be transferring after his third brush with the law since arriving on campus.
And yet with less than a week remaining in this year’s spring practice, perhaps the most interesting development for defensive coordinator Bud Foster has been the newfound depth he’s discovered in his linebacking corps.
Following last season, when Foster’s available talent pool was so shallow he couldn’t trust his reserves and had to play an overwhelming amount of nickel coverage, he now enjoys a depth chart that goes two, and sometimes three, deep at every linebacker spot.
“I’m real pleased with the direction of our linebackers,” Foster said Friday night after the Hokies latest full squad scrimmage
At middle linebacker, last year’s breakout star, redshirt junior Bruce Taylor, is out for the spring after undergoing arthroscopic shoulder surgery. His back-up, Jack Tyler, is also missing this spring with a stress fracture in his lower back.
But the injuries have allowed Foster to get an extensive look at redshirt senior Barquell Rivers, a starter two years ago who missed the 2010 season after rupturing his quad in a weight room accident.
While sitting out, Rivers put on almost 20 pounds and has had to spend the spring playing his way back into form. He says he weighs 243 pounds right now, but would like to get down to 235 or lower. Rivers has 10 tackles, two tackles for a loss and one sack while taking a majority of snaps with the first-team defense in four scrimmages thus far.
“He has times where he looks good and there’s times where it looks like he’s favoring that leg,” Foster said. “But [the injuries] allowed Barquell to get back and get in some playing shape and give us a good evalutation of him.”
Whether Rivers ends up being a contributing factor this fall is still up in the air, but he’s simply happy to be back on the field. Team doctors assumed Rivers would be able to play last season, but he kept having setbacks in his recovery. Even though the quad is healed at this point, Rivers now must deal with chronic knee pain as a result of having to favor one leg at times.
“I can see some plays where my leg is loose and I’m making plays like I’m used to,” said Rivers, who estimate he’s about 80 percent healthy right now. “And there’s days where it will be stiff and I really can’t move like I want to and it’s slowing me down. But I know that if I keep working at it, it’s going to get there one day.”
Another positive development from Taylor and Tyler being sidelined has been redshirt freshman Chase Williams’s transition to middle linebacker. Foster moved Williams to provide some depth this spring, but has quickly realized “that’s the best position for him.” Williams returned an interception for a touchdown in Friday night’s scrimmage.
At the backer position, redshirt sophomore Tariq Edwards has proven he deserves to be on the field full time this fall. Last year, Foster hoped Edwards would step up and grab hold of the starting job when Gibson was struggling. But Edwards never did and Foster wondered when his practice habits would catch up with his physical abilities.
This spring, Foster has grown more and more intrigued with Edwards’s combination of athleticism and length — he’s listed at 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds. His hope is that Edwards will be more of a dynamic playmaker than Gibson was.
Edwards’s backup, redshirt sophomore Telvion Clark, has also made strides this spring. A chiseled 6-foot-1, 217-pounder, Clark led all players with eight tackles in Friday night’s scrimmage.
And then there’s the whip linebacker spot, maybe the biggest question mark for the defense heading into the spring. Redshirt juniors Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and Alonzo Tweedy have emerged as the two top contenders for the starting job, and though both have played solid, neither has separated themselves.
In four scrimmages the duo has split time with the first team defense. Gouveia-Winslow, the more experienced in terms of actual playing time, has 12 tackles, one tackle for loss and one pass break-up. Tweedy, who possesses game-breaking speed, has 10 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.
We’ll find out more when the coaching staff reveals its depth chart following the spring game this weekend, but position coach Cornell Brown hasn’t indicated whether he favors either player. My guess is that the competition will stretch far into the summer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that duo ends up splitting time as starters this fall.
Regardless, the Hokies have gone from often playing with two linebackers last fall to having eight who have moved their way into a potential spot on the two-deep chart.