Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster is making some fairly significant changes to his injury-depleted front seven this week in advance of facing Georgia Tech’s unorthodox option attack Thursday night in Atlanta.
Redshirt sophomore Jack Tyler, a former All-Met from Oakton High, will get his first start of the season at middle linebacker in favor of redshirt senior Barquell Rivers while defensive end J.R. Collins will move to defensive tackle and start alongside sophomore Derrick Hopkins. Redshirt sophomore Tyrel Wilson will take Collins’s spot at defensive end along with normal starter James Gayle.
For a second consecutive year, cornerback Kyle Fuller will likely play a hybrid linebacker role as the Hokies turn to their nickel package against the Yellow Jackets. Starting whip linebacker Alonzo Tweedy is still nursing a high ankle sprain and was still in a blue jersey (limited work) during Sunday evening’s practice session. Redshirt senior Cris Hill will play outside at cornerback along with junior Jayron Hosley.
Foster explained the moves as a way to best utilize the Hokies’ available speed and experience facing Georgia Tech’s multifaceted running attack.
“We’re just trying to get our best people on the field and get our experience on the field,” said Foster, who added that preparing for Paul Johnson’s option offense is “a pain in the [butt].”
Last week at Duke – Virginia Tech’s first game since starting middle linebacker Bruce Taylor went down with a season-ending foot injury against Boston College – Rivers got the start and finished with five tackles and an interception to close out the victory.
But Rivers’s devastating quad injury from two years ago has hampered his lateral quickness, something that Foster worries about given the quick reads that make Johnson’s option so successful. Tyler’s strong suit also happens to be defending the run, and when Foster told he and Rivers of the decision on Thursday, the coach’s reasoning was, “he likes how I play downhill run defense, and that’s what you have to do against this offense,” according to Tyler.
“I think what we’re asking of our mike linebacker this week, I think [Tyler] gives us the best chance,” Foster explained.
Last year, when Virginia Tech defeated Georgia Tech, 28-21, at Lane Stadium, Taylor finished with a game-high 14 tackles and two sacks. So Tyler, a 229-pound former walk-on who had seven tackles filling in for Taylor in last year’s ACC championship game and started at middle linebacker in the Orange Bowl, knows this is his chance to make an indelible mark.
“Coach Foster said this is a game where I make a name for myself and I’m excited about that,” Tyler said. “It’s a great opportunity for me playing in an ESPN Thursday night game. Hopefully my position, my role is to, like Bruce did last year, make a lot of tackles, make a lot of big plays.”
As for the defensive line, Virginia Tech’s coaches hinted at perhaps using Collins as a defensive tackle this past spring, but it seemed like that experiment was discarded after the Stafford native showed up to fall training camp weighing 240 pounds, 13 pounds lighter than before.
But Foster talked Tuesday of how important a role injured defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins played a year ago against Georgia Tech as he “dented the line of scrimmage; not get dented.” Though freshmen Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall have performed well filling in for Hopkins since he tore his ACL against Clemson last month, Foster feels more comfortable using Collins alongside Derrick Hopkins inside.
“If we had both Hopkins boys in there, I’d feel [pause] but that’s why we moved J.R. He’s a rugged guy. He’s tough and hard-nosed and a 400-[pound] bencher and all those things,” Foster said. “He might be a little undersized but at the point of attack he’ll be fine. And when we start moving some people, I think he’s got some quickness in there that they’ll have to deal with a little bit.”
Collins has provided the most consistent production for the Hokies’ defensive line this year. The Brooke Point High product leads the team with six sacks from his right defensive end spot and has 31 tackles, the most of any Virginia Tech defensive lineman this year.
In Collins’s place will be Wilson, who performed well while Gayle nursed an ankle injury in recent weeks. Wilson is much quicker and more active than the average defensive end at just 219 pounds, but there’s a weekly concern for how his undersized frame will hold up going against hulking offensive linemen.
But the Hokies hope these personnel changes will play to their strengths against a Georgia Tech offense that gives everyone fits.