May 30, 2012

Rites Of Spring: Defense & Special Teams

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Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster gave us plenty to talk and think about this spring when, along with the help of his position coaches, he sent out a defensive unit filled with up-and-comers, injury depletion, and full-scale position moves. What this spring produced is a defense that looks like it has a chance to be Foster's best unit in a number of years.

Defensive Line
Storyline: Moving Inside, Moving Outside
Analysis: Virginia Tech's top four is very much set, much like how Tech's top five offensive linemen are also set. James Gayle, Derrick Hopkins, Luther Maddy, and J.R. Collins will be the starting defensive linemen and all were very good this spring.

Maddy was the biggest riser of the group, maturing from a freshman just trying to keep his head above water into a sophomore looking to becoming a lethal playmaker in the middle next to Hopkins.

With those four playing well and staying healthy, defensive line coach Charley Wiles was able to have a little fun with his second unit. In an effort to create a dominant pass-rushing package similar to the New York Giants, Wiles tried numerous defensive ends inside and outside.

Zack McCray, Corey Marshall, and Justin Taylor were the three guys who saw the most time inside and out, with McCray and Marshall leading the charge. In Marshall, Wiles has a fifth starter that can play either position. In McCray, he has a highly touted prospect that is still looking for the light to go on.

With Antoine Hopkins likely returning to a backup role in the fall once he recovers from ACL surgery, the Hokies were looking for redshirt freshman Kris Harley to step up and emerge as the fourth defensive tackle. Emerge he did as Harley showcased a strong first step and an impressive motor that saw him chasing running backs down on the perimeter as well. Harley's emergence will likely allow Marshall to spend more time outside at end, his preferred position, unless of course Antoine Hopkins cannot recover to 100%.


Linebackers
Storyline: Injuries, Injuries, and Injuries
Analysis: Entering last season, Virginia Tech's starters at linebacker where Tariq Edwards, Bruce Taylor, and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow. None of the three participated in spring practice this year, which opened up massive reps for numerous players to emerge.

At backer, Chase Williams worked past his injury and inconsistency woes and became someone Foster could rely on. At mike, Jack Tyler once again showed his natural knack for playing the game. He's not going to wow anyone with his size or athleticism, but he is sound in just about every facet of the game and has almost made Bruce Taylor's return an added bonus.

If Taylor returns to full strength, great news. If not, Tyler is more than capable of handling things in the middle. Taylor's absence also allowed Brian Laiti to get a lot of second team reps, which forced him to zero in and focus on becoming a better football player and he finally came through with some very real glimpses of ability as someone Tech could count on down the line.

Finally, one of the biggest developments of the entire spring was the emergence of redshirt freshman Ronny Vandyke at WHIP. With JGW out, Alonzo Tweedy and Vandyke got a lot of time and opportunity to prove their stuff.

Tweedy is an elite open field tackler and gives Tech a little more pure speed at linebacker, but Vandyke looks like the whole package. He's a terrific athlete with a tantalizing combination of size and speed and when you see him walking around on the sideline, he really is a scary looking dude. JGW is going to have his work cut out for him as far as getting reps once he returns.


Secondary
Storyline: Position Changes Everywhere
Analysis: Right before spring practice started, defensive backs coach Torrian Gray made an interesting move and announced that Antone Exum would move from rover to cornerback and cornerbacks Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner would move to free safety and rover, respectively.

After one spring practice session lasting about three weeks basically, one could qualify the moves a tremendous success. Exum looks a natural at corner and really picked up the position well. Putting Exum on the side opposite of star cornerback Kyle Fuller gives Tech a lockdown duo on the outside that allows the rest of the defense to flourish.

Bonner and Jarrett weren't as flashy in their improvement or development after the moves, but both seemed to take well to their moves. Bonner made a nice break on a ball to come up with an interception during the second open scrimmage.

The Hokies lack depth at virtually every position, with unproven yet intriguing players like true freshman cornerback Donaldven Manning, free safety Theron Norman, free safety Mike Cole, and rover Boye Aromire dotting the second unit.

However, the moves Gray made on the first unit give him tremendous flexibility in case of an injury, as none of the three players who made moves are likely to have forgotten how to play their old positions.

As for the backups, Manning was the most impressive after coming in following an early high school graduation at a mere 155 pounds. He certainly doesn't look any bigger than that, but he plays much bigger and is definitely Tech's No. 3 cornerback entering the fall.


Special Teams
Storyline: Still A Lot To Be Decided
Analysis: About the one thing we learned on special teams was that Michael Branthover looks like the punter hands down entering the fall. No one else looked nearly as comfortable as the sophomore back there.

As for the placekicking job, Conor Goulding held down the fort throughout the spring without much competition, but expect Cody Journell to return to his role as the top kicker assuming he gets reinstated prior to August.

Kyshoen Jarrett and Dyrell Roberts both got time as punt returners, while the Hokies didn't unveil their kick returns in any public outings. Nick Dew and Alonzo Tweedy are the gunners, Trey Gresh the holder, and Lukas Stump spent the spring as the long snapper while Joe St. Germain missed the session with an injury.

Things on special teams tend to get cleared up very quickly once the roles are clearly defined and that will likely happen during the first week or two of fall camp so the Hokies are ready to go for September 3.


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