2011 Virginia Tech Preview – Defense
Virginia Tech LB Bruce Taylor
Virginia Tech LB Bruce Taylor
Posted Jun 13, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Virginia Tech Hokie Defense

Virginia Tech Hokies

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: Coordinator Bud Foster wants to do more than just keep the Hokie defense on the tracks. He's hoping to pick up a head of steam after his kids showed some vulnerability in run defense and in the red zone in 2010. While there are no glaring weaknesses, Tech does need the young ends and linebackers to step up, and two new starters to emerge in the secondary. The Gobbler D will again play fast and with a swarming mentality, leaning on all-star LB Bruce Taylor and CB Jayron Hosley in the early going. It'll be worth watching the development of the sophomores, like DE James Gayle, LB Tariq Edwards, CB Kyle Fuller, and rover Antoine Exum, who all have a chance to be all-stars before they're through. Foster needs all of them to grow up before the opener arrives.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Bruce Taylor, 91
Sacks: Bruce Taylor, 6
Interceptions: Jayron Hosley, 9

Star of the defense: Junior CB Jayron Hosley
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore LB Tariq Edwards
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE James Gayle
Best pro prospect: Hosley
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Hosley, 2) Junior LB Bruce Taylor, 3) Senior FS Eddie Whitley
Strength of the defense: Takeaways, overall speed and athleticism, creating pressure, third down D
Weakness of the defense: Run defense, proven depth, red zone D

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: Yeah, only one starter is back from last season, but the coaching staff is showing a quiet confidence about its ability to rebuild along the defensive line. That's bound to happen when you're surrounded by veterans, on the sidelines and the depth chart, and have a proven track record of coaching up unproven players. In fact, the Hokies were so comfortable with their holdovers that one of last year's starters, DE Chris Drager, has been moved to offense to help bolster the tight end position.

The lone returning starter up front is 6-0, 299-pound junior Antoine Hopkins , a steady force on the inside for the Hokies. An explosive defender, he gets off the snap quickly and will explode into the opposing backfield. Playing with good leverage and a solid base, he was second among linemen with 45 tackles, adding 6.5 stops for loss, two sacks, and seven passes defended. He'll be joined on the interior by either 6-0, 301-pound senior Kwamaine Battle or 6-0, 298-pound sophomore Derrick Hopkins , his younger brother. One of just two rookies to play last year, he pursues very well, debuting with nine tackles and 1.5 sacks.

While young, the staff is ecstatic about the futures of its ends, primarily projected starters J.R. Collins and James Gayle, a couple of redshirt sophomores. Gayle is one of those freakish athletes, who's able to combine explosive speed and athleticism in a 6-4, 246-pound frame. He earned two starts in 2010, making 13 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss, four sacks, and a dozen hurries. The 6-2, 253-pound Collins is a similar athlete, playing with passion and intensity. He started one game last year, yet still contributed 25 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss, and five sacks. There's a buzz beginning to emerge about 6-5, 248-pound redshirt freshman Zack McCray as well. Still a little raw and light, he has the long arms and stride to blossom into an effective edge rusher.
Watch Out For .... the coronation of Gayle as one of the ACC's rising defensive stars. The defensive MVP of the spring, he consistently went around and through the Hokie blockers. A dynamic physical specimen, he now has a vital year of experience to call upon, and is set to emerge into a scary pass rusher.
Strength: Athleticism. As is often the case in Blacksburg, the tackles move like ends and the ends get around tackles like outside linebackers. Tech consistently does an outstanding job in the offseason, building up smaller defensive linemen and helping turn them into predators.
Weakness: Run defense. One year might not be enough time to solve the Hokies' problems in run defense. Last season's front had trouble slowing down the other team's backs, ranking seventh in the ACC and yielding a generous 4.7 yards per carry. Now rebuilt and lacking interior space-eaters, Tech has to find a way to do a better job of clogging running lanes.
Outlook: There's potential up front at Virginia Tech. There always is. The Hokies could start three sophomores, Gayle, Collins, and Hopkins, each of whom has an All-ACC ceiling. The young trio surrounding the elder Hopkins plays the game with the kind of energy that's going to frustrate opposing offensive lines. Run defense will remain a nuisance, but Tech will force the action and make plenty of stops behind the line in 2011.
Rating: 7.5


State of the Unit: The Hokies are looking for more consistency from its linebackers, a unit that was up-and-down a year ago. Coordinator Bud Foster favors defenders who can play the game smart and fast, attacking when there's an opening, but not allowing overexuberance to lead to silly mistakes. It's a fine line, one that's often easily crossed.

Junior Bruce Taylor, one of the team's two inside linebackers, was a breakout star for the Hokies in 2010. One of the brightest and most instinctive defensive players, he erupted for a team-high 91 tackles, 15.5 stops for loss, six sacks, and a dozen passes defended. Not the unit's best athlete, he's a 6-2, 252-pound banger who diagnoses well and will deploy the other guy's air bags. After being named All-ACC second team, he's looking to move up a rung on the conference ladder. The staff is hoping for the long-awaited return of 6-0, 241-pound senior Barquell Rivers, a starter in the middle in 2009. Still recovering from a ruptured quad tendon, he's targeting a return to the two-deep this summer. If he has any setbacks, 5-11, 220-pound sophomore Jack Tyler showed with last year's 25 tackles and six stops for loss that he's poised to contribute.

At the other inside spot, backer, 6-3, 228-pound sophomore Tariq Edwards is the frontrunner to start the opener. Still a little raw and undisciplined, he has the physical gifts and closing speed to gloss over some of his mistakes and make plays. In a reserve role last season, he had 21 tackles and got his feet wet. There's a battle brewing at the final spot, whip or outside linebacker, between 6-2, 195-pound junior Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and 6-2, 185-pound junior Alonzo Tweedy. Gouveia-Winslow still has a slight edge, but will need to step up his game. A former, with the necessary range and sure-tackling to play here, he had 41 tackles as a seven-game starter. Tweedy can really run and stick, doing most of his damage on special teams, needing to develop a better feel for the position.

Watch Out For .... Edwards to begin asserting himself. If spring counts for anything, he plans to take advantage of the transfer of last year's starter, Lyndell Gibson, following an arrest. He showed playmaking tendencies in March and April, beating the block and creating backfield pressure.
Strength: Taylor. One year is all that it took for him to become the rock of this unit and one of Tech's best defensive players. Effective against the run and the pass, he leads by example and is rarely caught out of place. Just by being in the huddle and on the field, No. 51 makes the rest of the Hokies better.
Weakness: Depth. While it's not as if Gibson can't be replaced, his departure does leave the Hokies a little thin on the second team, especially if Rivers' rehab is slow. The staff is also concerned about whip after Gouveia-Winslow struggled a year ago and was unable to put Tweedy away in the spring.
Outlook: Thank goodness for Taylor, who has single-handedly taken a marginal unit and pushed it to slightly beyond average. He's going to need more help, though, this season. The backer and whip positions often set the tone for the rest of the defense, forcing the action and making plays all over the field. At its best, the corps needs a Cody Grimm-like character to wreak havoc from sideline to sideline.
Rating: 7.5


State of the Unit: The Hokies will need to do some work on a secondary that's halfway there, losing a pair of productive starters and retaining two others. Perennially air-tight, Virginia Tech ranked 15th nationally in pass efficiency defense, but did spring leaks on occasion, yielding at least three touchdown passes on four separate occasions. While the foundation is in place, the staff has to build on it before the opener.

In just his first season as a starter, 5-10, 170-pound junior Jayron Hosley asserted himself as one of the nation's top young cornerbacks. In fact, he skipped the usual steps of the process, going from a rookie reserve to an All-American. Relying on keen instincts and ball skills, he led the country with nine interceptions, breaking up another eight passes and making 39 tackles. Still maturing, he has the hips and cover skills to consider leaving early for the 2012 NFL Draft.

The leader at safety will be 6-1, 187-pound senior Eddie Whitley, who's back for his second season as a starter. Versatile and one of the hardest workers on the team, he can play just about any position, but will remain at free safety. A long and fluid athlete, he finished third on the team with 80 tackles, adding four stops for loss, two picks, and six pass breakups.

So who replaces Rashad Carmichael and Davon Morgan at corner and rover, respectively? After playing well in his first season, 6-0, 178-pound sophomore Kyle Fuller is seeking a promotion at cornerback. One of just two true freshmen to play in 2010, he actually entered the lineup after Carmichael was injured and finished with 32 tackles, four stops for loss, and six breakups. His veteran counterpart is 5-11, 176-pound senior Cris Hill , a former hot recruit who has yet to deliver. After playing sparingly last fall, he's running out of time to make his mark in Blacksburg. After playing some free safety a year ago, rover is likely to be the domain of 5-11, 217-pound sophomore Antone Exum . A former quarterback and can't-miss recruit from 2009, he has all of the physical tools for success, moving very well for a big man. He had 45 tackles and nine breakups a year ago.

Watch Out For .... Exum to flourish in his new role. After two years on campus, he's ready to take off and give the Hokies a genuine enforcer out of the secondary. His size-speed combination is rare and will allow him to roam the field and literally be the rover that the defense requires.
Strength: Ball skills. Even without Carmichael and Morgan, the Hokies will continue to attack the ball and make things happen once they intercept it. Last year's team had an ACC-high 23 interceptions, a number that it'll approach again in 2011.
Weakness: Blown coverages. Virginia Tech had too many lapses last season when facing quality quarterbacks, such as Kellen Moore, Russell Wilson, and Andrew Luck, giving up 19 touchdown passes. Now the Hokies must insert two newcomers into the secondary, raising more concerns about their ability to shut down sharp passing teams.
Outlook: While Hosley and Whitley give the staff reason for optimism, Tech has to get the two new starters up to speed and build up some depth. The pass defense will once again be feisty, though it won't be impenetrable, flashing weakness against some of the more seasoned passers on the schedule.
Rating: 8

Special Teams

State of the Unit: Few schools regroup better on special teams than Virginia Tech, which is a good thing since that's exactly what the school needs to do. The Hokies are looking for a replacement at placekicker and punter for the fifth and second straight year, respectively. Of course, it's worth noting that the program broke in newcomer at both positions a year ago, yet Chris Hazley and Brian Saunders both earned All-ACC honors. In other words, it's an area of interest, but not exactly causing the staff to miss any sleep.

Sophomore Cody Journell is in line to become the next great Tech placekicker, building distance on the competition in the spring. The rare Hokie kicker on scholarship, he's looked like it, kicking with distance and accuracy. Senior Justin Myer is inconsistent, but has the pop to handle kickoffs for a fourth consecutive year. Punter is a toss-up involving junior Scott Demler, sophomore Grant Bowden , and redshirt freshmen Ethan Keyserling and Conor Goulding . Demler was considered the favorite heading into spring, but this is a wide-open competition that won't be decided until August.

In senior Dyrell Roberts, junior David Wilson, and junior Jayron Hosley, the Hokies have three dynamite options in the return game. Wilson led the ACC in kickoff returns in 2010, Roberts was fourth in the nation in 2009, and Hosley second in the league in punts a year ago.

Watch Out For… : Danny Coale to contend for the punting job. What? Isn't he the starting flanker? Yup, one and the same. It turns out that he has past experience at the position and a level of calm that's appealing to the staff. His fundamentals are ragged, but if nobody else steps up, the senior could become an instant candidate for the Paul Hornung Award.
Strength: The return game. Again. This has been a dynamic and overlooked aspect of the Hokies' success over the past few seasons. They've got a handful of good options to choose from and enough game-changing returners to provide a big boost to the offense.
Weakness: Punter. Although Tech has had a habit of crying wolf in this area during past offseasons, it might have a legitimate concern this time around. Out of the gaggle of contenders, no one stood out during the spring, which is why a receiver, who punted in high school, is getting serious consideration.
Outlook: Despite the turnover, Frank Beamer and his staff always seem to find a way to piece together an air-tight special teams unit. This fall should be no different in Blacksburg. Journell has an all-star upside, and the return game and coverage teams are well above average. The situation at punter is the one dicey area that'll take time to resolve.
Rating: 8

- 2011 Virginia Tech Preview | 2011 Virginia Tech Offense
- 2011 Virginia Tech Defense | 2011 Virginia Tech Depth Chart
- Virginia Tech Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006