Due to the weather, some customers may experience late delivery of The Roanoke Times. We apologize for the delay.
Saturday, October 5, 2013
BLACKSBURG -- The leading tackler on the nation's fourth-ranked defense remembers sitting in the Lane Stadium stands many years ago, pondering all the glorious possibilities.
What if he could run out of the tunnel as a part of the team? What if, as a senior, he could elbow his way onto the kickoff-coverage unit? What if he even went so far as to make a tackle in an actual game? Wouldn't that be so great?
"I remember joking with Dad that if I ever got to be the longsnapper on the field goal team, I would be happy," Virginia Tech linebacker Jack Tyler says. "Obviously now, the expectations have all changed."
Tyler's story is that of a walk-on living his dream, a wonderful tale that should be told and retold no matter how trite it might become to the cynic. But look around this defense that's allowing a paltry 241 yards per game. The stories of overachievement are everywhere.
Average the Rivals.com recruiting star rankings of the 12 players listed as starters or co-starters on Tech's defensive depth chart, and you'll come up with an underwhelming figure: 2.67. Only one player (cornerback Kendall Fuller) received the five-star label in high school. Tyler wasn't rated at all. Neither was linebacker Josh Trimble.
Even if you replace Trimble with Brandon Facyson (three stars), forming the nickel lineup the Hokies are most likely to feature against North Carolina today, the average rating is a mere 2.91 stars.
This means one of two things: Either Rivals is way off on its evaluation of high school talent, or the Hokies are accomplishing something extraordinary with pretty ordinary physical assets. The better bet is on the latter.
But why? What creates the synergy for a defense that held top-ranked Alabama to 206 total yards, that limited East Carolina to 204, that shut down a Georgia Tech rushing attack that came in brimming with confidence?
A search for the answer pointed to five key factors:
Belief in the system runs deep. Bud Foster's status as a defensive guru imbues the players with faith that they'll be put in the right positions, that they don't need to do anything more than what's asked of them.
This isn't as common as we might think.
"We watch other teams all the time, every day, and they're not doing their assignments," Tyler says. "They're not getting in their gaps, and you can just tell that they're not buying into the system. They're trying to do their own thing, trying to take over, trying to do other people's assignments. We don't do that here. Because if you do that, you won't play."
Just as important as being receptive to coaching is knowing the guy beside you is doing the same. Tech's thinking goes like this: You do your job, I'll do mine, and we'll celebrate when it's over.
"You've got to play with trust," safety Detrick Bonner says. "If you don't have trust out there, things just won't flow right. It's like you and your wife. If you don't trust your wife, it'll never work."
A less nebulous characteristic makes the Hokies' skills play up: They've been around. They know what they're doing and what's expected of them.
Tyler's a fifth-year senior. Sacks leader J.R. Collins is a fifth-senior. So are James Gayle, Tariq Edwards and Antone Exum. Derrick Hopkins, Kyle Fuller and Bonner have been here four years.
"We've got guys who really care about the football team," defensive line coach Charley Wiles says. "Fortunately, we've got some maturity. It makes a lot of difference having those qualities."
3. Emotional balance.
Much like Tyler, Hopkins describes himself as a "calm, collected" guy on the field. Still, he knows that a group of 11 calm, collected guys might not be conducive to dominance.
"A quiet defense is a dead defense," says Hopkins, a three-star recruit.
That's where natural firebrands such as Kyshoen Jarrett (three stars), Gayle (three stars) and Bonner (three stars) provide that equilibrium. That shout of encouragement. That edge.
"Good defenses have emotion," Hopkins said. "We have some people that are kind of rowdy and some people who are calm, cool. It's a good blend."
4. Keen evaluation.
Wiles likes recruiting services. He uses their video often when judging abilities. But just as important is talking to people who've helped mold the prospect, gaining insights on his personality profile and aptitude.
"Don't be a guy that's an energy taker," Wiles says of the primary intangible he seeks. "Be an energy giver. Don't make it about you. It ain't about you, it ain't about me. It's about what's best for our football team. I don't want lazy guys around me. I want guys who like to practice hard, because you've got to make preparation and practice hard or you're not going to play well. That's been demonstrated forever."
Trusting your evaluation skills is critical, too. Tech defensive backs coach Torrian Gray was the first assistant from a major program to tender a scholarship offer to Facyson, who's tied for the national lead with four interceptions.
"I didn't have to wait for other schools to offer him for me to say I want to recruit this kid and offer him," Gray said. "Detrick Bonner, same thing. If a kid has a certain skill set, no matter who's offered him, I feel good about it."
Regardless of their high school profile, new players are baptized equally into the Hokie way of life.
"We have a system here," Gray said. "We kind of have a culture of the way we do things, and it starts with Coach [Frank] Beamer, it starts with Coach [Mike] Gentry with those kids in the weight room, and it starts with Coach Foster. We're just trying to impress upon them: This is Virginia Tech. This is kind of how we do it."
There are two ways to view being overlooked in high school. You can accept it as your lot in life, cursing your bum luck in the genetic lottery, or you can use it as a springboard to your future success.
The Hokies do a little bit of both. They embrace the opportunity to compete while acknowledging that schools might have had ample reason to pass on them.
"We all have very similar goals because we're all from very similar backgrounds," Tyler said. "Maybe Derrick's not as tall. Brandon may not have run the fastest 40. But I think that adds that chip to everybody's shoulder.
"We weren't recruited as high as some of these UNC guys, some of these Miami guys, and we want to prove to them that we're just as good - that we're better than them, that we should have been recruited as highly as them. I think that quality takes our defense to a whole other level."
Today, Tech's group of 2.67-star defenders will take the field against a Tar Heels offense loaded with 4- and 5-star studs.
The Hokies will do so as a touchdown favorite. Because as Tyler can tell you, the way things might have looked five years ago ha s little bearing on the present.
Weather JournalIce threat may grow into Sun PM