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The Hokies' defense has a big role in redeeming the program.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
BLACKSBURG — In The Village of Cracked Femurs, the man with the sprained ankle is king.
So all hail the Virginia Tech defensive line, proudly walking to assume that throne — albeit with a noticeable limp.
Let’s face it: Tech’s preseason has been a bummer, a seemingly nonstop reservoir of unwanted bulletins. Since the spring, nine scholarship players have been erased from the 2013 plans because of dismissals, personal decisions or injuries. That doesn’t even include junior defensive tackle Corey Marshall, who took a leave of absence from the Hokies recently to tend to unspecified personal matters.
But the good news with the Marshall case is that he’s a backup on the deepest, most experienced unit this team has. And the uncertainty with him doesn’t change the fact that if the 2013 Hokies are going to improve on last season, the known quantity is going to have to lead the way.
This defensive line must dominate.
No unit on this team has more experience or promise. Tech’s top four defensive linemen all return, carrying a combined 92 starts among them, and there’s significant depth at both end positions.
They also have some perspective they didn’t have last year. They know that talent is only part of the equation.
After an embarrassing defensive effort in an Oct. 6 loss to North Carolina last season, the Hokies dropped to 98th out of 120 FBS teams in rushing defense (196.7 yards per game) and 64th in total defense (390).
The numbers were gruesome for a proud defense, and a big part of the problem was a lack of consistency up front. Defensive line coach Charley Wiles says he spent too much time dealing with off-the-field headaches — missed tutoring sessions, skipped classes — among a minority of players on his unit.
Meanwhile, even those who were taking care of business off the field were struggling on it.
“We weren’t hungry,” senior defensive end Derrick Hopkins said. “We were just satisfied going out there and playing. As the year went on and we grew up and progressed, we got hungry. When somebody’s hungry, they go after the food they want. And that’s what happened. We went out there and played like we knew we could play.”
The numbers fell in line. Tech’s defense rallied to finish the season 18th in total defense (333 yards), 29th in rushing defense (134) and 32nd in scoring defense (22.9) That improvement lends hope to a team that could struggle offensively as it breaks in new receivers and adjusts to an overhauled system.
Before Marshall’s departure, Wiles said he felt comfortable using eight or nine defensive linemen this season. Lower that to seven or eight now. Still, if they don’t get off the field right away, he can make wholesale, hockey-style substitutions without much drop-off.
“I think we have a chance, really, to be special up front,” Wiles said. “It’s all out in front of us. That’s the journey we’re on right now. Can we get better and come through and be productive and stay injury-free?”
The core of this unit already has been more healthy than it was last year, when defensive end James Gayle had to be held out of contract drills throughout the preseason with an ankle injury. Gayle still took second team All-ACC honors for the second straight year after registering five sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
A three-year starter, he’ll be the linchpin of this group, and motivation shouldn’t be a problem. In the preseason, he tweeted an admonition — “Underestimate me this year if you want to and I’m going to wake you up” — on the same day he didn’t make the preseason All-ACC team.
“I actually didn’t even know that that had come out,” Gayle said. “I was just thinking that. It just so happens that that tweet went well with what happened at the time. I feel like people have underestimated me my whole life, so it doesn’t matter. I’m just going to continue to do what I do, and that’s play hard.”
The first test comes against top-ranked Alabama, which had to replace three All-American offensive linemen. Tech opened as a 22-point underdog against the two-time defending national champs, so few are expecting a tight game. But if the Hokies are going to keep it close, those linemen will have to be buzzing in the ’Bama backfield.
Whatever happens, it’s the first step on a long journey — one that shouldn’t wear out Tech’s top known quantity, sprained ankle and all.
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