If there was a silver lining to the torn ACL Virginia Tech defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins suffered in the Hokies’ loss to Clemson last October, it was that the redshirt senior got a chance to take a step back from the game for the first time since he began playing organized football as a fifth-grader outside Richmond.

At first, Hopkins appreciated the break. But it wasn’t long before he longed to be on the field again, and more than the battle he’s now in to regain his starting role, it’s this urgency that will serve as his motivation now that his final season in Blacksburg has arrived.

“It gave me a chance to look at the game and study it a little more and actually really miss it,” Hopkins said after completing his first full practice of the year Tuesday. “You’re always playing it, so you kind of take it for granted. But I actually kind of missed it and seeing all my friends go to the NFL and making teams and things like that, it gives you more push to try and ride that money train this year.”

Hopkins, who became a starter early in the 2010 season and kept the job until his injury, will need to beat out sophomore Luther Maddy if he wants to line up next to his younger brother, Derrick, at defensive tackle when the Hokies take on Georgia Tech next month. Maddy helped replace Hopkins last year, but elevated his level of play to a new level during spring practice when he was named the defense’s top performer. Hopkins was relegated to non-contact work then, but he isn’t conceding anything in this position battle.

“It’s competition. That’s something you go through your whole life,” said Hopkins, who had eight tackles and six quarterback hurries through five games in 2011. “I was solid last year and the year before that and I don’t plan on being on the second team this year, so I’m gonna go out there with the starting mentality and take it from there.”

The Hokies are especially deep on the defensive line this year, with eight or nine players that could merit playing time, and defensive coordinator Bud Foster plans to rotate all of them to keep everyone fresh during games.

The question facing defensive line coach Charley Wiles, though, is whether he prefers the disruption Maddy’s quickness and burst off the line could cause opposing offenses or Hopkins’s knack for drawing double teams because of his 313-pound frame. It seems the answer could change from week-to-week.

“Luther may end up starting one game, and Hop may start another game. Or Hop may start 13 games or whatever,” Wiles said. “I want to be fair to Antoine. He’s been good to our program. He was playing very well when he got hurt and he’s not gonna lose his position.

“But they’re gonna compete. I’m gonna put Luther with the [first team] to reward the work he did in the spring and let those guys battle it out and see who’s gonna start that first football game for us.” . . .

One defensive lineman who could be headed towards a redshirt season because of Virginia Tech’s depth is former All Met defensive end Ken Ekanem. But he seems open to it since he’s still recovering from a torn ACL and meniscus suffered in last year’s Virginia AAA state championship game

“I look at a redshirt as not a bad thing because of my knee,” Ekanem said. “I would like to play but it wouldn’t hurt to redshirt.”

The Centreville grad said he immediately put on 15 pounds once he was injured, and admitted he’s still working his way into shape again. He expects to soon be back down to his playing weight of 240 pounds.