2012 Virginia Tech Preview - Defense
Virginia Tech CB Kyle Fuller
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Virginia Tech Hokie Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Bud Foster is at it again. The longtime Hokies' coordinator led a sophomore-dominated D to seventh nationally in points allowed in 2011. Now that all of those second-year players are gradually becoming upperclassmen, Virginia Tech expects to be one of the nation's nastiest units. Only two starters are being replaced, both from the secondary. Cornerbacks Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller are back, looking to reprise their roles as All-ACC performers. The newcomers on the last line of defense will be FS Detrick Bonner, a converted corner, and rover Kyshoen Jarrett. The front seven is going to be mentioned right there with Florida State as the most dominant in the ACC. The defensive line rotation is deep and oppressive, slapping opposing lines with explosiveness from the inside and the outside. Ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins are lightning quick, combining for 13 sacks a year ago. On the inside, Derrick Hopkins, Luther Maddy and Antoine Hopkins are undersized and extremely hard to block. Besides the safeties, linebacker is the other pressing concern. Oh, the unit has talent, but it also has durability issues after Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and Bruce Taylor couldn't finish the 2011 season, and Tariq Edwards missed spring following surgery. If the linebackers can stay healthy all year, this team has the ingredients to become Foster's best D in years.
Star of the defense: Junior CB Kyle Fuller
Tackles: Antone Exum, 89
Sacks: James Gayle, 7
Interceptions: Kyle Fuller, Tariq Edwards, 2
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore S Detrick Bonner
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Luther Maddy
Best pro prospect: Fuller
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Fuller, 2) Junior DE James Gayle, 3) Senior LB Bruce Taylor
Strength of the defense: The D-line, pass defense, cornerbacks, team speed, run defense, third-down D, red-zone D
Weakness of the defense: Durability, unproven safeties, secondary depth
The Hokies went with youth up front last year, employing mostly underclassmen. This fall, they're about to reap the benefits of their rebuilding efforts. Everyone is back from a unit that produced two all-stars and a slew of quarterback pressure. No one is generating more offseason excitement than junior DE James Gayle, whose debut in the starting lineup produced 38 tackles, 12.5 stops for loss, 20 pressures and a team-best seven sacks … all with an ankle injury that nagged him throughout the season, and limited his explosiveness. The 6-4, 250-pound All-ACC Second Team pick naturally gets off the ball quickly, using good moves to quickly get around the edge.
Joining Gayle in the lineup at end is 6-2, 252-pound junior J.R. Collins , an underrated cog of the D-line. While not as flashy as his partner, he's extremely productive, making 57 tackles, 9.5 stops for loss, six sacks and 29 quarterback pressures in 2011. The blue-collar worker in the trenches is tough at the point of attack, excellent against the run and flush with emotions. Collins is capable of setting the tone for the Virginia Tech D, both with his play and his approach to the game.
Sophomore Zack McCray is the program's best end off the bench, and a key member of the line rotation. He averaged about 10 snaps a game, making 14 tackles. Even at just 6-4 and 245 pounds, the staff has enough confidence in his power and versatility that he could be used some on the inside.
Junior Derrick Hopkins is a safe choice to hold down one of the two tackles positions. He was a steady force as a run defender in 2011, starting all 14 games, and contributing 51 tackles, five stops for loss, three sacks and a dozen quarterback pressures. At 6-0 and 298 pounds, he has the low center of gravity needed to anchor his base and essentially become an immovable object in the middle of the line.
The coaches have a good problem at the other tackle position—two quality performers for one job. Conventional wisdom suggested that Hopkins' older brother, 6-1, 318-pound senior Antoine Hopkins , would slide right into the lineup once he recovered from last season's season-ending knee injury. Through six games, he'd made just eight tackles, far off his 2010 production. Still, the coaches know that when healthy, he can be a disruptive presence from the inside.
However, Hopkins has other issues besides rehabbing his knee. Trying to close the gap on sophomore Luther Maddy , for instance. The 6-1, 288-pounder started the final seven games, and got better as the season unfolded. He wound up with 19 tackles, including a pair behind the line, building on that debut with a breakout spring. He is going to be a handful for whichever opposing linemen draw his number this fall.
Watch Out For .... Maddy to leave Hopkins in his dust. The sophomore is healthier, quicker to the pocket and about to begin the 2012 season with a higher ceiling than his older teammate. Basically, he is a rising star in Blacksburg, who took full advantage of his chance to play when the starter went down last year.
Strength: Penetration. Inside, outside, broadside … name a side and the Hokies are capable of bringing pressure from it. The program returns all of the key parts from a defensive line responsible for one of the country's premier sack units of 2012. While Gayle and Collins garner most of the attention, don't sleep on Maddy and the Hopkins brothers, who are capable of gashing opposing lines from the inside.
Weakness: Interior girth. Admittedly, a lack of beasts on the inside didn't hurt the Hokies much last fall. However, big and physical offensive lines do have an ability of shoving Virginia Tech around. As good as the team was against the run on a cumulative level, it did yield more than 200 yards on the ground to Miami, Georgia Tech and Clemson.
Outlook: After starting so many underclassmen in 2011, yet still flourishing, the Virginia Tech D-line is set to stake its claim to one of the liveliest front walls in America. The unit is fast, assertive and deep, all of which is going to equal a full season of perpetual harassment for quarterbacks. If Gayle's ankle isn't barking, he's good enough to warrant multiple blockers, and to rank among the nation's leaders in sacks.
How good will the Hokies linebackers be this fall? Check with the trainer. Virginia Tech was banged up here in the spring, creating opportunities for former backups to get first-team snaps. Middle linebacker Bruce Taylor is working his way back from a Lisfranc sprain to his foot that limited him to eight games in 2011. Despite the abbreviated slate, the 6-2, 253-pound enforcer still got named honorable mention All-ACC, making 53 tackles, seven stops for loss, five sacks and 16 quarterback hurries. A Heady and instinctive senior, he overcomes modest athleticism by taking the right angles, wrapping up in the open field and displaying excellent short-area quickness. Taylor is a tone-setter for the Gobblers.
While Taylor sat out the spring, 5-11, 230-pound junior Jack Tyler ably handled the position on the inside. The former walk-on was named the Defensive MVP of the spring, consistently playing with the focus and intensity that the coaches love. A much better run defender than coverage guy, the four-game starter collected 42 tackles.
At the other inside position, known as backer, the job is expected to go to another recovering Hokie, junior Tariq Edwards. He started all 14 games in 2011, but suffered an offseason stress fracture to his left leg that required surgery. In his first full season in the lineup, he helped bring the production and big plays back to the position by making 71 tackles, 11.5 stops for loss, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions. While still a little raw in his reads, he uncorks the closing speed and tenacity in a 6-2, 232-pound frame that will help the staff overlook some of his rough spots.
There's an intriguing three-man battle brewing at the final spot, whip or outside linebacker. The veterans are a pair of experienced seniors, 6-2, 212-pound Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and 6-2, 189-pound junior Alonzo Tweedy. Like Taylor, Gouveia-Winslow is also on his way back from a Lisfranc sprain that shelved him for the second half of 2011. At the time of the injury, he'd made just nine tackles, a level of production that won't cut it at this position. Tweedy took advantage of Gouveia-Winslow's injury to finish the year with 23 stops and four tackles for loss. The former safety is big and fast, and always in attack mode.
The wild card at whip is 6-3, 215-pound redshirt freshman Ronny Vandyke, one of the breakout stars of the spring. While the staff already knew about his ideal size-speed fit for the versatile position, it was floored by the rookie's retention of a new gig, and fundamentals. He began the offseason looking to win this job, and no one is ready to tell him he won't do it.
Watch Out For .... the competition at whip to drag on throughout the summer. Not only has Vandyke complicated matters by adding a third viable body into the mix, but the coaching staff needs to see if Gouveia-Winslow is feeling any of the effects of his injury. The Hokies need a playmaker at this position, a Cody Grimm-like performer, and will not rush naming a starter.
Strength: Range. Virginia Tech shows a penchant for making a lot of plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. In the case of Edwards and Tweedy, their athletic ability is the driving force of their success. For Taylor, on the other hand, he has the high football IQ to never be too far away from the flow of the play.
Weakness: Durability. While the Hokies have proven that they've got adequate depth, they'd prefer not to have to tap into early in the year. Every position was somewhat compromised in the offseason, with Taylor and Gouveia-Winslow gradually working back from foot injuries, and Edwards dealing with a broken leg.
Outlook: The Hokies linebackers have plenty of upside potential, but will fall short of reaching it if injuries continue to sap its depth and talent. At full strength, with Taylor carrying the flag, this unit is capable of making a ton plays, including many for minus yards. And of course, the bright side of the spate of injuries is that they afforded valuable reps to Tyler and Tweedy, who normally would have been buried on the bench or special teams.
Virginia Tech was sound in pass defense in 2011, but remaining air-tight will require the adequate replacement of two important starters. The Hokies will be looking to finish no lower than No. 15 nationally in pass efficiency defense for a fourth straight year, an impressive run of success in the secondary. Now that Jayron Hosley is a New York Giant, junior CB Kyle Fuller is about to become the new leader of the defensive backfield. He was revelatory in his debut in the starting lineup, making 65 tackles, a team-high 14.5 stops, 4.5 sacks, two picks and nine passes defended. The Second Team All-ACC selection showcased his all-around versatility by starting half the season at whip linebacker and the other half at cornerback. Despite being just 6-0 and 181 pounds, he can do it all from this side of the ball, and usually at the most opportune times. Yeah, he's fast and predictably athletic, but it's Fuller's smarts and feel for the game that really help make him one of the ACC's most complete defenders.
Fuller needs a new partner at cornerback, a role that'll be filled by converted S Antone Exum . Another of the multi-dimensional Virginia Tech defensive backs, he led the 2011 team with 89 tackles, while adding five stops for loss, 11 passes defended and two forced fumbles. What's so intriguing about the 6-0, 219-pounder is that he looks—and hits—like a linebacker, yet has impressed the staff this offseason with his hips and cover skills. Exum is going to intimidate opposing receivers, many of whom are going to be 20-30 pounds lighter than him.
Coming out of spring, the top backup at both cornerback spots was Donaldven Manning . What's most compelling—and a little frightening—about the development is that the 5-9, 155-pounder is just a couple of months removed from high school. He obviously needs to pack on the weight and the reps, but has flashed the cover skills of a future starter in Blacksburg.
Now that Exum has vacated free safety, 6-0, 186-pound sophomore Detrick Bonner is set to take over. He'll have the luxury of being able to call upon four starts in 2011, two at cornerback and two at whip linebacker. He closed his first year with 27 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss and five passes defended, impressing with his head as well as his physical ability. Bonner can play any of the secondary positions, a real luxury for the staff.
Rounding out the defensive backfield will be 5-10, 188-pound sophomore Kyshoen Jarrett who is tentatively slotted at rover. While his skill set seems to scream cornerback, the team believes that he possesses the requisite physicality and ball-hawking ability to handle one of the safety spots. He had seven tackles as a true freshman, seeing most of his action on special teams.
Watch Out For .... the depth chart to remain somewhat fluid. Bonner and Jarrett could still flip positions, depending upon which safety is more adept at making calls and getting everyone lined up, an underrated skill in this system. The pair could be flipped, or one could even be moved to cornerback if Exum has any issues at the position.
Strength: Athletic ability. The Hokies never have a problem filling the secondary with quality athletes. The upcoming season will be no different. The starting four will pay homage to versatile defensive backs who can make their presence felt in myriad different ways. Tech will essentially be comprised of DBs who can cover like corners and attack the backfield like safeties.
Weakness: Depth. The Hokies are extremely thin off the bench at safety and cornerback, but particularly the latter. Manning may have a promising future, but it's never a good sign when a rookie is already being penciled in as the first man off the sidelines. And the No. 2 safeties, sophomore Boye Aromire and redshirt freshman Michael Cole , have just four career tackles between them.
Outlook: The secondary may be loaded with talent, but it'll still be a fluid process as Exum adjusts to cornerback, and the new safeties adapt to their promotions. The Hokies will be good for a slew of game-changing plays in 2012, ranging from pick sixes to assaults on the quarterback. However, they'll also be a little more vulnerable over the top than a year ago, a particular worry in second-half games with Clemson and Florida State.
Get to know sophomore Michael Branthover who is on the verge of becoming the most important special teams performer in Blacksburg. The unit was a complete mess a year ago, dogged by extremely poor punting and a late-season suspension to the kicker. It's tenuous to be sure, but Branthover currently holds a lead at both punter and placekicker after showing well in the spring. He's more experienced as a punter, averaging 36.6 yards on 25 attempts a year ago. Looking to prevent him from being a dual-threat is sophomore PK Connor Goulding who began the spring atop the depth chart, but was unable to hold the lead.
The return game is wide-open now that Jayron Hosley, Cris Hill and David Wilson are no longer with the program. The Hokies plan to continue auditioning their slew of good athletes that currently dot the offense and the defensive secondary.
Watch Out For… the whereabouts of junior PK Cody Journell. He hit 14-of-17 field goal attempts in 2011, and would have easily won the job back if not for last December's arrest and subsequent suspension from the team. However, in May he pled guilty to lesser charges, which just might pave the way for a return to the program in the summer. Stay tuned.
Strength: Punt coverage. Despite getting no help from the three different punters who took a swing at the job, Virginia Tech still wound up No. 8 nationally in punt return yardage at just over four yards an attempt. The Hokies never feature a shortage of quality athletes, many of whom wind up making plays downfield on this unit.
Weakness: Punting. After trying Branthover, Danny Coale and Scott Demler in 2011, all Tech could muster was an average of 36.7 yards a punt to rank 114th nationally. Even with support from the coverage team, the Hokies took a beating in field position to put undue pressure on the D. Branthover performed better in the spring, but there are hardly any guarantees that he's reached a turning point.
Outlook: Right now, special teams looks as if it's going to be a liability for the Hokies. However, there is a glimmer of hope. If Journell is able to work his way back into the program's good graces, and a flashy return man or two can be mined, the group won't be nearly as fragile as it appears right now. Branthover remains a very important piece of the puzzle, as Tech pines for better production from its punter.
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2012 Virginia Tech Defense |
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