Defensive coordinator Bud Foster made it known loud and clear when spring practice began three weeks ago that one of the biggest reasons last year’s defense became uncharacteristically susceptible to big plays was the lack of a playmaker at the whip linebacker spot.

Ashburn native Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, the starting whip in 2010, heard that and knew many onlookers were predicting his days as a key contributor on defense were numbered. But as the Hokies finished spring practice Saturday, Gouveia-Winslow’s name still sits atop the whip depth chart, even though he’s been splitting time with redshirt junior Alonzo Tweedy on the first team.

By all accounts Gouveia-Winslow has made significant progress from his struggles last year, and finished the spring with 13 tackles. Tweedy is the faster of the two, but Gouveia-Winslow has shown a penchant for flying to the ball and become more sure of himself, coaches said.

“It was definitely a challenge. You want to have the coaches’ confidence in you, so this spring I came in with the mentality that I’ve got to fight for my spot,” Gouveia-Winslow said. “I feel like everything’s a lot slower … I make my reads, I feel confident in my calls and just go from there. I feel like it’s real simple now. The more you can make it that much simpler, makes it a lot easier.”

Gouveia-Winslow had a sack and fumble recovery in Saturday’s game, but he does not have the starting spot locked up. In fact, position coach Cornell Brown said earlier this week there’s a distinct chance Gouveia-Winslow and Tweedy could end up splitting time at whip when the real games get underway this fall, a possibility Coach Frank Beamer confirmed on Saturday.

But regardless if he plays full time or not, Gouveia-Winslow says he feels like a different player now. Hopefully that will help a unit that finished 2010 ranked 52nd nationally in total defense.

“I can anticipate more this year,” Gouveia-Winslow said. “I feel like all the talk about who’s playing whip … it’s motivation it’s in the back of my mind. I just try to get better every day.”. . .

I’ve written quite a bit about Logan Thomas throughout the spring, and in my story on the spring game for Sunday’s paper (which also includes news on Danny Coale’s quest to become punter).

But to recap what took place Saturday, Thomas threw two interceptions, including one on his first throw of the game. However, both picks were due to drops by his own receivers, and one of them he recovered after safety Wiley Brown fumbled the interception.

Thomas also had two touchdown passes, one of which was his best play of the afternoon. On a 21-yard touchdown throw to wide receiver Marcus Davis, cornerback Detrick Bonner bit hard on a beautiful pump fake and Thomas then laid a perfect touch pass into the receiver’s hands.

“I would say confidence is what I’ve gotten through this whole spring,” Thomas said afterwards. “I’m happy where I am with that. Going into the fall I just want to work on my accuracy and timing with my receivers.”. . .

Perhaps the more interesting development as spring practice has moved along is the battle to become Thomas’s backup, a position that is now definitively undecided heading into preseason practices in August.

Redshirt junior Ju-Ju Clayton had another lackluster showing Saturday, completing just 3 of his 10 passes and throwing two interceptions. In the past three scrimmages, Clayton is 11 of 32 for 72 yards, 0 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.

Redshirt freshman Mark Leal, on the other hand, has seen his performance go in the opposite direction. After completing just 1 of 7 passes in the Hokies’ first practice of the spring, Leal has been “exceptional,” according to Beamer. He’s completed 14 of 23 passes for 249 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in the past three scrimmages.

Leal has benefited from the foot injury suffered by Washington native Ricardo Young in the Hokies’ first spring scrimmage.

“As soon as [Young] went down, [quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain] said reps are coming your way and I knew I had to take advantage of this,” Leal said. “My main focus was to learn how to read the defense once I got my plays down. I’ve really progressed as a quarterback so far.”. . .

The starting defensive line had another strong showing Saturday. Defensive end J.R. Collins had two sacks, giving him 12 tackles, 7 tackles for losses, 4 sacks and a blocked field goal in the past three scrimmages. Defensive end James Gayle collected his sixth sack of the spring as well. Defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins also had 1.5 sacks.

In terms of depth, Beamer said he expects “two or three” of the Hokies incoming freshmen to help out in the defensive trenches come August.. . .

It’s also worth noting that cornerback Jayron Hosley showed he hasn’t lost a step from his stellar sophomore campaign last fall. The rising junior had a 61-yard punt return for a touchdown.. . .

Last but not least, a full rundown of the spring practice and offseason awards that were announced during halftime of Saturday’s game.

MVP: QB Logan Thomas (offense); DE James Gayle (defense)

Top newcomers: C Andrew Miller (offense); DT Derrick Hopkins (defense)

Most improved: G David Wang (offense); LB Tariq Edwards (defense)

Leadership award: WR Danny Coale (offense); FS Eddie Whitley (defense)

Most hustle: LT Andrew Lanier (offense); LB Jeron Gouveia-Winslow (defense)

Coaches award: WR Jarrett Boykin (offense); CB Jayron Hosley (defense)

Team first award: RT Blake DeChristopher (offense); LB Barquell Rivers (defense)