One of the annual rites of Virginia Tech’s spring practice is when defensive coordinator Bud Foster decides who on his unit deserves to carry the famed lunch pail to and from the field for the rest of the season. It’s a mark of leadership, and last season the honor belonged to defensive tackle John Graves.

But on Wednesday, as Foster made his first formal remarks to reporters since Virginia Tech’s humbling 40-12 loss to Stanford in the Orange Bowl, the Hokies’ defensive mastermind held the rusted lunch pail in his own hands.

“I don’t see anybody right now that’s deserving of it,” Foster explained.

This provided a glimpse into Foster’s mind-set heading into this new season, a year in which he returns just four starters from an already young group.

Sure, Foster had warned that 2010 could be a rebuilding year for his defense, and the Hokies did have all-American cornerback Jayron Hosley, who led the nation in interceptions, as well as NFL-bound cornerback Rashad Carmichael.

But after six straight years ranked among the top 12 in the country in total defense, it was shocking to see what a liability the defense became at times in 2010. The unit gave up the most rushing yards per game (155.9) since Foster became defensive coordinator before the 1995 season and allowed opponents to score 27 or more points five times. It all culminated in a second-half thrashing at the Orange Bowl, when Stanford scored touchdowns on its first four drives after halftime.

Last year “we had a lot of young guys and we played hard,” said Foster, whose unit had never before given up more than 128 yards per game on the ground. “But we didn’t play the way I wanted. ”

Foster went on to say that 2010 “tested his patience” like no other season before and that the defense simply didn’t to the standards past units had set, despite showing improvement throughout the year, and even over the course of specific games. The unit gave up close to 34 points per game and finished 52nd in the nation in terms of yards allowed per game.

So Foster spent this summer trying to pinpoint exactly what went wrong, and his studies even included a trip to Columbus, Ohio, to see how Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel’s staff goes about its business. After reviewing every play in which an opponent gained 10 yards or more from last year, it became abundantly clear the Hokies were at their weakest when teams ran on the perimeter, and specifically at the whip linebacker and rover spots, where Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and Davon Morgan held starting jobs a year ago.

Gouveia-Winslow’s struggles have been well documented — Morgan finished with five interceptions and had 82 tackles, second-best on the team — and Foster believes his reliance on the nickel package to compensate for their struggles ultimately led to the opposition having 68 plays that resulted in gains of 20 yards or more. Only seven other teams in the nation allowed more big plays of that nature.

“Those are playmaking spots for us; those are guys we spill the ball to,” Foster said of the whip and rover. “They’re guys that need to make plays in space. We played with a hodgepodge of guys last year [at whip], and we weren’t consistently good. We couldn’t blitz. We weren’t very good at keeping our leverage. We weren’t very good tacklers. … It just took us out of a lot of the things that we like to do.”

When it was all said and done, Foster used four different whips over the course of last season. The whip is a hybrid linebacker of sorts in Virginia Tech’s defensive scheme who is counted upon in coverage but also must be able to blitz in Foster’s pressure-heavy system. Sometimes Gouveia-Winslow played at the whip spot last year, but because he struggled in open space, often safeties Antone Exum and Eddie Whitley or cornerback Kyle Fuller were inserted instead.

Foster said that he won’t eschew his nickel package completely this year, but wants to return to using predominantly his base defense rather than relying on an extra defensive bck.

The only problem is that even Foster admits, “We’re probably younger this year than we were last year,” and his corps of backups consists of a slew of redshirt freshmen who have yet to see action in an actual game.

“I’m excited for the future, but sometimes the future is now,” Foster said. “We’ve got to be better and we’ve got to grow and develop. We’ve got to learn our positions, the expectations of our positions and then how that position plays a role in the defense. And then getting guys to play hard and playing fast, we’ve got to get back to that.”

So for now the lunch pail belongs to Foster, not a particular player. His hope, though, is that this spring reveals multiple players worthy of holding it.

“We’ll see and look back to see what guy gave us the best winning demenanor, attitude, effort, all those things that we need to be an ACC champion again,” Foster said. “I told the defense, ‘We want a different guy each day because that makes a statement about the direction everybody’s going.’ That it’s gonna be a team effort, not just some individual.”