On paper, it appears as if Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit is back to its old self. The Hokies rank eighth in the country in yards allowed per game, fourth in rushing yards allowed and have given up all of 30 points through three games.

But even those on the Hokies defense wonder just good they are considering Virginia Tech has yet to face a team from a BCS conference.

Foster agrees with his players, although he has come to one conclusion. A year after struggling to grasp even the most basic concepts of his defensive scheme, these Hokies have proven they’re a more knowledgeable bunch this year.

“Last year they were just worried about getting lined up and getting their key reads,” Foster said this week. “Now they understand those things and we can coach offense a little bit, let them understand that and what they can anticipate a little bit more.”

So while the emergence of first-year starters like linebacker Tariq Edwards (team-high 21 tackles) and cornerback Kyle Fuller (team-high 5.5 tackles for loss) have certainly buoyed a defense that struggled at times a year ago, Foster thinks the real improvements have simply come from experience.

Though the defense has welcomed six new starters this year, all of them contributed in some way in 2010 when Virginia Tech went through some unfamiliar ups and downs.

“That makes up for a lot of ills, so to speak, because the kids know how to respond, know how to play and all those types of things,” Foster said.

Foster’s unit could have a field day on Saturday at Marshall. The Thundering Herd had six turnovers in their 44-7 loss to Ohio last week, including four interceptions from freshman quarterback Rakeem Cato.

This week, Marshall Coach Doc Holliday raved about the Hokies’ team speed on defense, particularly along the defensive line.

But if Cato wants to avoid another disastrous outing he might be wise to avoid cornerback Jayron Hosley. The junior got his first two interceptions of the year against Arkansas State last week, a game in which he graded out better than any other defender on the team.

The past two games, Virginia Tech has had Hosley shadow East Carolina wide receiver Lance Lewis and Arkansas State wide receiver Josh Jarboe. Those two combined for just seven catches and 55 yards.

“You think that people would get tired of attacking No. 20 because he’s really a tremendous football player and he’s proven that,” Foster said.

The Hokies have been able to deploy Hosley in such a manner because Fuller and senior Cris Hill are adept at playing both the field and boundary cornerback positions, a development that has allowed Foster to disguise his coverage schemes more so than most college defenses.

Expect Foster and company to vary their coverages once again on Saturday, while bringing lots of different blitz packages to confuse Cato. Linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow could see an increased role because this is the first non-spread offense the Hokies have faced this year.

It’s important to note, however, that in the Thundering Herd’s lone win of the season, a come-from-behind 26-20 victory over Southern Miss, Cato threw three second-half touchdowns, two of which went to wide receiver Aaron Dobson.

Marshall also has 5-foot-9, 202-pound running back Tron Martinez, a player Virginia Tech recruited before he ran into legal trouble during high school. Foster said this week that at one time the Hokies’ coaching staff “liked [Martinez] as much, if not more, than David Wilson.”

Perhaps more importantly, though, this Hokies defense knows from experience that this could be a trap game with next week’s nighttime affair against Clemson to open up the season.

“All the games count. They might not count the same to fans, but as far as wins and losses, they all count the same,” linebacker Bruce Taylor said. “We’ve just got to go out there and whoever we line up with, play our best football.”