2013 Virginia Tech Preview - Defense

Posted Jun 6, 2013

CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Virginia Tech Hokie Defense

Virginia Tech Hokies

Preview 2013 - Defense

- 2013 Virginia Tech Preview | 2013 Virginia Tech Offense
- 2013 Virginia Tech Defense | 2013 Virginia Tech Depth Chart

What You Need To Know:  Losing just two starters from a defense that ranked No. 18 nationally in 2012 has Virginia Tech poised to once again stand among the FBS' surliest and stingiest units. Coordinator Bud Foster is one of the best in the business, crafting attacking, fundamentally-sound groups that yield very little ground. The 2013 edition will be no exception. The Hokies are going to be especially tough to throw on, the byproduct of a terrific pass rush and a lockdown secondary. Up front, Tech will pressure the pocket from all angles with ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins and tackles Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy. The defensive backfield boasts just as much talent, though All-ACC CB Antone Exum is making his way back from an offseason ACL injury. The linebackers need someone to step up and provide a little support for tackling machine Jack Tyler. Tariq Edwards has the requisite talent to be that guy, but was never quite healthy enough to deliver a year ago. The Hokies are going to be dynamite once again this year on D.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Jack Tyler, 119
Sacks: James Gayle, 5
Interceptions: Antone Exum, 5

Star of the defense: Senior DE James Gayle
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior LB Tariq Edwards
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Dadi Nicolas
Best pro prospect: Gayle
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Gayle, 2) Senior CB Antone Exum, 3) Senior LB Jack Tyler
Strength of the defense: The D-line, pass defense, cornerbacks, team speed, limiting big plays, run defense, third-down D, red-zone D
Weakness of the defense: Linebacker, creating fumbles

Defensive Line

The Hokies will once again be small, quick and disruptive up front this season. They'll also be experienced, with only one senior gone from last year's crew. Setting the tone on the outside will be senior DE James Gayle, whose explosiveness off the edge helps make him one of the most feared pass rushers in the ACC. He has all of the physical tools to command double-teams in the fall; despite going 6-4 and 253 pounds, he still popped off a ridiculous 4.44 in the 40 and a 39-inch vertical leap during last year's testing. The two-time Second Team All-ACC selection overcame unwavering attention from the opposition to register 43 tackles, 11 stops for loss, five sacks and a team-best 27 pressures. Gayle is determined to turn more of those hurries into sacks this fall.

While Gayle tests the integrity of opposing front walls from the outside, DT Derrick Hopkins will once again look to do the same from the interior. At 6-0 and 312 pounds, the senior gets off the snap quickly, and plays with the optimum pad level needed to bully his way through blockers. The All-ACC honorable mention selection was in on 51 tackles for a second straight year, adding 10 stops for loss and 3.5 sacks. Hopkins has started 27 straight games, and was an underrated cog of a defense that allowed just 3.6 yards per carry in 2012.

The Hokies have a good problem at the other end spot, two qualified candidates for one job. The incumbent is 6-2, 252-pound senior J.R. Collins, a veteran of 23 career starts. While not as flashy as Gayle, he proved in 2011 to be a disruptive presence off the edge. However, he tailed off as a junior, with his numbers slipping to 31 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss and 1.5 sacks. Collins needs to bring it on every down or else …

… the staff will promote fast-rising sophomore Dadi Nicolas.The 6-2, 227-pounder is freakishly athletic, a smaller and less polished version of Gayle. He played sparingly in 2012, making 17 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss and two sacks, but really blew up in the spring. It's going to get harder and harder to keep No. 90 off the field this fall.

Hopkins' partner on the interior will be 6-1, 295-pound junior Luther Maddy, an underrated performer last season. He's started 16 games over the last two years, notching a career-high 35 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss, four sacks and 13 quarterback hurries in 2012. Lightly-recruited coming out of high school, he's learned to use his leverage and his quickness to blow up opposing running plays.

While Tech is light on depth on the inside, with little-used sophomore Kris Harley considered a veteran off the bench, it's rich in troops at defensive end. As backups go, 6-1, 225-pound senior Tyrel Wilson and 6-1, 260-pound junior Corey Marshall are luxuries for the coaching staff. The blue-collar Wilson started three games last season, chipping in 27 stops, 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. The versatile Marshall started four games last fall, and had 26 tackles, three stops for loss, 1.5 sacks and a dozen hurries. He's played some tackle, which could be where he winds up if the young backups don't deliver.

Watch Out For .... rookie Wyatt Teller to get a fair shot of joining the rotation at tackle. The four-star recruit had offers from Florida, Michigan, Oregon and Notre Dame, but chose to stay close to home and be a Hokie. He'll be joining a group of tackles that has no openings at the top, but could present opportunities on the second team.
Strength: Pressure. Inside, outside, starboard side … name a side and the Hokies are capable of bringing maximum heat from it. Tech is welcoming back all of the key pieces from a D-line that spearheaded the ACC's top sack unit in 2012. There's all kinds of speed on the outside, while the tackles are some of the quickest and most penetrating tackles in the league.
Weakness: Depth on the inside. The one thing that could reroute this group in 2013 would be an injury to Hopkins and Maddy, neither of whom has much of a safety net behind him. The Hokies are young and undersized off the bench, which is going to present problems against the run if one of the two pillars comes down for any length of time.
Outlook: All signs point to this current D-line being one of the feistiest in recent memory in Blacksburg. And that's saying something for this program. Virginia Tech has it all at the point of attack, experience, speed and a proven track record of mounting pressure. The front wall is little undersized, but not many opponents on the 2013 schedule figure to be able to take advantage.
Rating: 9


During the spring of 2012, Jack Tyler was named the Hokies' Defensive MVP. It turns out that the former walk-on's offseason performance was no fluke. After seizing control of a starting job, the 6-1, 225-pounder went on to lead the team with 119 tackles, 13 stops for loss, 2.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hurries en route to a surprising spot on the All-ACC First Team as voted by coaches. The self-made, instinctive run defender is rugged at the point of attack, offsetting modest athleticism by taking good angles and tracking the ball from sideline to sideline. Tyler fittingly prepped at the same high school, Oakton in Virginia, as former blue-collar standout Hokie Cody Grimm.

At the other inside position, known as backer, the job is expected to go to senior Tariq Edwards, who was never quite right after suffering an offseason stress fracture to his left leg that required surgery. He only played in seven games in 2012, starting one and making four tackles. However, he's the same rangy, 6-2, 232-pound athlete who delivered 71 tackles, 11.5 stops for loss, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions in 2011.

The program is excited about the potential of sophomore Ronny Vandyke, the whip or lone outside linebacker in the Hokies' alignment. From a physical standpoint, he has a world of upside, a 6-3, 211-pounder with the range to make plays all over the field. He was brought along slowly in 2012, starting twice and making 21 tackles, but the training wheels are about to be taken off this year.

The most experienced linebacker off the bench will be Tyler's backup, 6-2, 230-pound junior Chase Williams. He's tough, smart and always improving, earning a start and getting in on seven tackles a season ago. While no threat to the starting job, he'll serve as a comforting insurance policy off the bench.

Watch Out For .... how fluidly Edwards is moving during the summer. He's the key to this unit in 2013, a real wild card in need of approaching his pre-injury form. Edwards was saddled with pain and a limp last fall, which stunted his ability to make plays. The Hokies need him to be the player who once again can make stops all over the field.
Strength: Range. The Hokies harbor the athletes and the instincts to impact the pass rush and the pass defense. Tyler is a terrific run defender, who plays with good angles and instincts. Edwards and especially Vandyke are thoroughbreds, with the range to be employed in myriad different ways.
Weakness: Uncertainty after Tyler. Tech has an all-leaguer in the middle. But surrounding him is a young player with a lot to prove and a veteran needing to show that last year's injury doesn't still haunt him. Plus, the depth situation after Williams is precarious and unproven.
Outlook: Who knows? Tyler is the lone sure-thing on a unit that could go in either direction once the season begins. Right now, linebacker is the weakest area of the D. However, if Edwards can get back to 100%, and the light suddenly goes on for Vandyke, Virginia Tech has a chance to surprise from the second level this fall.
Rating: 7


Everyone is back from a secondary that ranked among the nation's best in 2012 … maybe. All-ACC Second Team CB Antone Exum resisted the temptation to hightail it to the NFL in order to play one more year in Blacksburg. But an ACL injury suffered in February during a pickup basketball game has his immediate future in jeopardy. His rehab is expected to last six to nine months, making the opener with Alabama a goal, but also a longshot. When healthy, the ultra-versatile Exum is an intimidating, linebacker-sized corner, who led the Hokies with five interceptions and 21 passes defended a season ago. He possesses improbable speed for a 6-1, 224-pounder, and has a penchant for altering the tempo of a game.

If and when Exum does get back on the field, he'll be joining forces with another terrific cornerback who thought long and hard about leaving school early, senior Kyle Fuller. The third-year starter wasn't quite as productive as his 2011 debut, making 52 stops, picking off two passes and breaking up seven balls to earn honorable mention All-ACC. Chalk up the decline to being banged up for much of the year. The 6-0, 193-pound Fuller is a next-level, with the versatility to be employed in myriad different ways. Not only are his cover skills advanced, but he hits like a safety, and plays with the speed and the savvy to be a major nuisance on blitzes.

As Exum rehabs, sophomore Donaldven Manning has been filling the void at cornerback. He played in eight games as a rookie, making four tackles and gradually getting accustomed to the college game. The 5-9, 174-pounder has added much-needed weight in the offseason after getting at times in his debut. Manning has the base cover skills to evolve over time into a very good pass defender.

The all-important rover position once again belongs to Kyshoen Jarrett, especially since backup Michael Cole has retired from the game because of a neck injury. Jarrett finished second on the Hokies with 83 tackles, adding 4.5 stops for loss and four passes defended. Forget the fact that he's built like a cornerback at 5-11 and 194 pounds. Jarrett carries himself with all of the swagger and nastiness of a much bigger safety, lowering the boom as a run defender and in pass defense. After largely flying under the radar in 2012, the junior is poised to turn a lot more heads this fall.

Returning as the starting free safety is 6-0, 189-pound junior Detrick Bonner, who was in the lineup for all 13 games in 2012. He finished fourth on the team with 60 tackles, adding three stops for loss, a pick and 11 passes defended. Bonner has excellent speed and good cover skills, giving the Hokies the equivalent of a third corner in the secondary.

Watch Out For .... any updates on Exum. He's coming back in 2013, with the great unknown being the timetable. The opener still seems aggressive, though it would be nice to have No. 1 facing that Alabama passing attack. There's certainly no need to rush the situation, a move that could cause a setback that derails the senior in his final year.
Strength: Defending the pass. Virtually intact is a unit that ranked 14th in in the country in pass efficiency defense last season. How tight were the Hokies in coverage a year ago? Only two other schools, Nebraska and Florida State, allowed a lower completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks. Tech gives up very little ground, sticking to receivers from the moment the ball is snapped.
Weakness: Lapses. The Hokies were terrific in coverage last season, but there were breakdowns in coverage that need to be addresses, especially if Exum misses time. Virginia Tech allowed three touchdown passes to Tino Sunseri of Pitt, Munchie Legaux of Cincinnati and EJ Manuel of Florida State, all of which were losses.
Outlook: If Virginia Tech has access to a healthy Exum, which is not yet a certainty, it'll boast one of the nation's stingiest pass defenses. The unit is deep, talented and accustomed to playing together as a cohesive set of defenders. Each of the starters has an All-ACC ceiling, which will make for interesting matchups during the year with the likes of Alabama's AJ McCarron, North Carolina Bryn Renner and Miami's Stephen Morris.
Rating: 9

Special Teams

Everyone is back, encouraging news for the Virginia Tech special teams unit. Senior PK Cody Journell is coming off a terrific season in which he nailed 20-of-25 field goals, three that were game-winners. He's now hit 81% of his career field goal attempts over the past two years, but has a long of just 42 yards.

Sophomore A.J. Hughes won the punting job in 2012, and will look to hold on to it in 2013. A specialist who's more likely to work the angles than to uncork booming punts, he averaged 40.6 yards, while placing 22 of his 79 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Just behind Hughes is redshirt freshman Hunter Windmuller, an up-and-comer with a bright future.

The frontrunners to handle kick returns and punt returns, respectively, are sophomore Demitri Knowles and junior Kyshoen Jarrett. Knowles ranked No. 12 in the country a year ago at 28.3 yards a return, while Jarrett was ninth at a 13.9-yard clip. Both gamebreakers snapped off touchdown jaunts of at least 93 yards.

Watch Out For… Journell to finally get the recognition he deserves form league voters. What does a guy have to do to get on the All-ACC team around here? All the senior has done over the last two seasons is connect on 34-of-42 field goal tries, yet he's done no better than honorable mention All-ACC as a Hokie. That ought to change this fall.
Strength: The return game. In Knowles and Jarrett, Tech boasts two of the more electrifying return men in the conference. Both Hokies have proven what they can do with a hint of daylight, which could force opposing kickers to boot some out of bounds. Either way, Tech is going to benefit from good field position.
Weakness: Kick coverage. It was the one area that failed the Hokies in 2012, and really needs to be addressed during the offseason. Far too soft in coverage, and guilty of missed tackles, Virginia Tech ranked 94th in the country, yielding a touchdown and more than 23 yards an attempt.
Outlook: It might not be vintage Beamer Ball, but Virginia Tech has come a long way over the past year. At this time last year, the Hokies appeared to be a liability here, but Journell returned from a suspension, Hughes did a decent job and the return game popped. With everyone back in Blacksburg, it'll be a good year for the Tech special teams unit.
Rating: 8.5

- 2013 Virginia Tech Preview | 2013 Virginia Tech Offense
- 2013 Virginia Tech Defense | 2013 Virginia Tech Depth Chart