Winning the Battle Up Front

Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster knows that games are won and loss on the line of scrimmage. Rest assured Foster is preparing his defensive line to be a key factor in the September 6th showdown with Boise State.

As the old cliché goes, football games are won and lost in the trenches.  Virginia Tech Head Coach Frank Beamer, defensive coordinator Bud Foster and defensive line coach Charley Wiles have won a lot of football games together so it stands to reason that they know a thing or two about what it takes to put together a great defensive line.  From National Football League Hall of Famer Bruce Smith to Nagurski and Lombardi trophy winner Corey Moore, the Hokies have outstanding tradition when it comes to the defensive line.   

Despite their success, the Hokies typically don't look like your top flight D-1 defensive line.  Take a look at the aforementioned Corey Moore who had one of the most productive defensive end careers in NCAA history.  He was a mere 6-0, 212 lbs.  Of course, he ran a 4.38 40-yard dash and could bench press an Escalade.  Moore is an outlier in terms of production and lack of size, but you get the point.  The Hokies tend to sacrifice size in order to gain speed along the defensive line.  

Let's go over the role each of the four defensive line positions play in Foster's scheme and take a look at who will be manning those positions.  

It doesn't happen often, but there has been a season or two where Foster's stop unit has struggled.  The common theme in those seasons was poor play at the defensive tackle positions.  If all the offense has to do is hand the ball off and run it straight up the middle for four yards, it's going to be a long day for the defense.  This is why it is critical to have a couple of big, stout, defensive tackles anchoring the defensive line.  The Hokies tend to recruit DT's that are shorter than what most programs would deem acceptable.  They prefer a stockier athlete with a low center of gravity.  The goal for the Hokies DT's is not simply to plug the middle by holding their ground, but to get penetration past the guards and center and begin disrupting the play at the snap.  Having shorter, stouter frames allows the DT's to play with better leverage and get under the pads of the O-lineman trying to block them.   

Last season the Hokies primarily used a three-man rotation at DT.  Departed is starter Cordarrow "Taco" Thompson and key back up Demetrius Taylor.  The lone returning starter along the defensive line and bell cow of the big boys is……  

91 – John Graves (6-3, 283, r-Sr.)

Graves is an excellent athlete given his large frame.  He will be a good fit at the DE position in the NFL in a 3-4 scheme.  However, in VT's scheme his combination of size, strength, and athleticism is the perfect fit at defensive tackle.  He was slowed down for a good portion of the season last year due to a knee injury he suffered against Georgia Tech.  Finally healthy against Tennessee in last years bowl game, Graves turned in an outstanding performance.  He was very effective in stopping the UT run game and was able to get pressure on the quarterback up the middle.  Graves is poised to have a great senior season after winning defensive MVP of the spring honors and his play and leadership will go a long way in determining how good the Hokies' defense will be this year.  

This is where defensive line coach Charley Wiles will have his work cut out for him.  He must find a capable starter to line up next to Graves .  It appears to be a two- man battle at this point for the other starting spot  

93 – Kwamaine Battle (6-0, 297, r-Jr.)

Battle entered the spring as the leading candidate for the open starting position and has held serve to this point.  The coaches like his combination of strength and quickness but his progress has been slowed by injury thus far in his career.  Battle will need to continue to improve and impress because there is a talented player right on his heels.   

56 – Antoine Hopkins (6-0, 296 r-So.)

Hopkins played in all 13 games last season and played well at times.  He deflected four passes last year and picked one off against Alabama in his first collegiate game. However, the coaching staff was critical of his consistency and the speed with which he played at times.  Not uncommon problems for a freshman to have.  However, this spring Hopkins appeared to have turned the corner.  The coaches were very pleased with his play and he is right in the mix to be the 2nd starting DT and will be the top back up if he doesn't win the job.  

53 – Dwight Tucker (6-1, 284 r-So.)

Tucker is not quite the same caliber of athlete as Hopkins and Battle .  However, what he lacks in natural talent he makes up for with great effort.  He has a high motor on the field and is really making strides in the weight room and with his conditioning.  Tucker may be a year or two away from being a contributor, but I wouldn't bet against a guy with this type of work ethic.  

One incoming freshman worth mentioning…..  

No number assigned – Nick Acree (6-5, 297 Fr)

Acree is the most physically impressive prospect I can recall the Hokies signing.  I honestly did not know that the human body could be developed at this level before the age of 18.  Acree is all man and already boasts a 450-pound bench press before entering a collegiate strength and conditioning program.  However, I do not think he will be ready to contribute by Sept. 6th.  Acree is from a very small high school and did not face top-notch competition nor did he receive top-notch coaching.  He transferred to Fork Union Military Academy to rectify that situation but suffered a season-ending knee injury during summer practice and never saw action his senior year.  Critics claim that his technique is raw and he plays too high for a defensive tackle.  He will need some polishing before he will be ready to contribute.  A move to the offensive line is possible, but Acree will start out on Foster's side of the ball.  

Now that we have answered the age-old question "Where is the beef?" lets take a look at how VT uses its defensive ends.  The two DE positions are called the End and the Stud.

These two positions have unique responsibilities.  The End will line up to the short side of the field.  His primary responsibility is to secure the edge against the running game.  He must be very strong at the point of attack and cannot allow himself to get pushed off the line of scrimmage or advance too far up field, opening up running lanes.  Both defensive ends will be asked to drop into short pass coverage at times as well when Foster dials up a zone blitz.  So, it is not sufficient for the End to simply have brute strength.  He must be a capable athlete as well.  Last year's starter Nekos Brown has graduated.   

Replacing him will be…..  

3 - Chris Drager (6-3, 260 r-Jr.)

Drager is another one of the type of players that coaches love.  The Hokies had serious depth issues at DE heading into last season.  Despite having a standout 2009 spring at tight end, Drager made the move to DE at the conclusion of spring practice for the good of the team.  To give you some perspective on what type of an athlete he is, Drager would be the Hokies starting TE this year had the move not been made.  Chris saw action in all 13 games last season as a backup.  He recorded 22 tackles, 6.5 for loss, and 2.5 sacks.  Not bad for a guy who only had one fall training camp to learn the position.  The light really started coming on for him at the end of last season, and he became a consistent playmaker down the stretch.  Drager will be asked to shed a few pound to get him back to his more natural size--around 245 – 250 lbs.     

Developing depth behind Drager will be a major priority for Wiles.  

99 - James Gayle (6-4, 246 r-Fr.)

Gayle turned a lot of heads this spring and made it a little bit easier for Coach Wiles to sleep this summer.  He is a high motor type player who is extremely athletic.  In fact, he is so athletic they he will probably get reps at both the End and Stud position.  Like all freshmen concentration and consistency are the major concerns here.  He had a couple of mental lapses in the spring game. That will need to be corrected before Labor Day.

 

42 – J.R. Collins (6-2, 255 r-Fr.)

Collins played well last fall in scrimmage situations.  However, he came to school a bit on the thin side.  He has since put on the necessary weight to compete at the collegiate level, but he is still getting used to his new frame.  He has good instincts and playmaking ability. He just needs reps to put the package together.  Off-season workouts and August practice will determine how much Collins contributes this fall.  

Finally, that leads us to the Stud position.  The Stud will line up to the wide side of the field and will have attributes of a typical pass rusher.  He receives some help to the outside from the Whip linebacker with respect to stopping the running game.  This allows him to be a little more aggressive in attacking the backfield than his counterpart the End.  Jason Worilds (6-1 254 lbs.) departed early for the NFL.  Worilds was a phenomenal player for the Hokies, but had a chronic issue with his shoulder popping out of place.  I can personally attest to Worild's toughness as I was sitting front row behind the Hokies' bench at the 2008 Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and saw the trainers pop the shoulder back in the socket.  Worilds finished that game on the field and helped the Hokies win the ACC title.  The biggest downfall for the Hokies was that his bum shoulder had to remain on the outside of the offensive line.  Thus, the Hokies could not flip flop their defense ends as they normally due to get their best pass rusher on the wide side of the field.  While Worilds talent will be missed, Foster's system will be in better shape because it will no longer be compromised due to Worilds injury.  

So who will be replacing Jason at the Stud position..............?  

82 – Steven Friday (6-4, 235 r-Sr.)Friday was named the most improved defensive player of the spring and for good reason.  He consistently made plays in every scrimmage.  Sacks, forced fumbles, tackles for a loss, you name it Friday was getting it done this spring.  He played in 12 games last year recording 3.5 sacks and 6 QB hurries.  Not too bad considering how infrequently Worilds came of the field.  Friday would have been a more of contributor earlier in his career but he has had a very difficult time keeping weight on his long athletic frame.  He has always been a talented pass rusher, but could not always hold his ground against the opponent's rushing attack.  His body has finally matured allowing him to be an every down player.  My bold prediction for this season is that Friday will record double digit sacks as the starter at the Stud end.  

Behind Friday the Hokies are very inexperienced at the Stud positions.  As previously mentioned James Gayle will probably be the top backup for both end positions.  The Hokies will give a couple of youngsters a shot to crack the two-deep early in their career.  

90 – Duan Perez-Means (6-4, 240 Fr)

Perez-Means came to camp with the Hokies last fall, but suffered an early shoulder injury.  He deferred his enrollment until this past January in order to save a year of eligibility.  Duan practiced with the team this spring and impressed the coaches enough that he is being considered to forgo a redshirt season.  A talented TE/WR in high school, Perez-Means has the athletic ability to be a playmaker at the Stud position.  The Hokies must determine how soon they will expect him to contribute.  

No number assigned – Zack McCray (6-5, 235 Fr)McCray is a player that Hokie fans have been waiting to see donning the Orange and Maroon for two seasons.  His cousin Logan Thomas was one of the top prospects in the country two years ago. All of Hokie Nation knew that Thomas's younger cousin was going to be a player as well.  McCray racked up a long list of high school accolades.  He has all of the physical tools to be a dominant collegiate defensive end.  If he can pick up the system quickly enough this August, McCray may skip his redshirt season and contribute immediately.   

As you can see, there is a common trend here.  The Hokies will have four solid starters on the defensive line.  The backups for those players are young and inexperienced.  Wiles and Foster will be developing capable backups over the next few weeks. 


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