Five to watch: Virginia Tech Defense

The second half of the 2012 football season begins with Duke traveling to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech. Here are five players to watch on defense for the Hokies.

Usually when you return the majority of your defense including all four linemen, there is little concern about a major drop off in production. Unless you're the 2012 Hokies who have struggled to stop offenses at times this year. Last week it was North Carolina rolling up 262 yards on the ground. This week the Blue Devils will look to spring a historic upset against a program looking to avoid its worst start to a season in 20 years.

The Blue Devil offense comes into the game averaging just under 38 points per game and will look to continue to establish a running game behind backs Juwan Thompson and Jela Duncan. Despite Tech's recent struggles, head coach David Cutcliffe is aware that this team is still loaded with talent -- perhaps as much as any team in the ACC.

"When you look at Virginia Tech on tape, it's the Virginia Tech that we all know. Some hard knocks, some difficult circumstances here and there, but there is talent," the Duke head coach told the media. "Physical front on defense, and it is a great tribute to what North Carolina did last week running the ball like that. It is no easy task, but I do think this. I think it is important for our players to challenge our program and go up there and compete."

For the season the Hokies are surrendering 196.7 yards per game on the ground and 193.3 through the air. For a Duke team that prefers, and heavily relies on attacking through the air, it'll be an interesting matchup as the Blue Devils continue to work to establish a high major running attack.

Top 5 to watch Virginia Tech Defense

1. LB Jack Tyler (6-1, 236, R-Jr.): Tyler spent last season as understudy and then starter at middle linebacker. After earning a scholarship as a former walk-on, Tyler has been a bright spot for a Hokie defense that has come under fire from media and fans alike.

Virginia Tech lists Tyler at 6'1 and 235 pounds, but he may be closer to 5-11 and 230. Still, being a bit undersized hasn't slowed him down when it comes to production. Coming into the game against Duke he leads the ACC in tackles with 53. In the Hokies' biggest win of the season against Georgia Tech he came up with 17 stops.

Earlier this year he was named ACC Linebacker of the Week for his impressive performance in the victory over the Yellow Jackets. Last week as the Tar Heels were running around and over the Hokie defense, Tyler once again did his part to right the ship, recording seven stops and a sack.

2011 v. Duke: 1 tackle in reserve role.

2. DE J.R. Collins (6-2, 261, R-Jr.): Collins earned all-conference honors a season ago by leading a talented defensive line in tackles with 57 stops including 9.5 tackles for loss. Not only was Collins getting into the opponents' backfield, he was also disrupting their passing attacks to the tune of 29 quarterback hurries, one interception, and six sacks. It was good enough to earn all-ACC Honorable Mention citations.

The preseason got off to a rocky start for the redshirt junior after he was demoted on the depth chart after reporting late to a team meeting. H\He has since regained his starting position.

This season Collins' production has slowed a bit as the Hokies' defensive unit has floundered at times. Still, he's capable of causing problems off the end, and will look to disrupt the Duke precision passing game (under Renfree) and the will look to rattle an inexperienced signal caller if Anthony Boone is starting. On the year Collins has recorded 22 stops and 3.5 tackles for loss. He's also managed to hurry opposing QBs nine times in six games.

2011 v. Duke: Three tackles, 1.0 TFL, and two quarterback hurries.

3. S Kyshoen Jarrett (5-10, 195, So.): Originally recruited as a cornerback, Jarrett has been converted to safety as a true sophomore. Jarrett was one of seven true freshmen to play in 2011, earning 25 snaps on defense and 139 on special teams. With the Hokies' depth at cornerback, Jarrett moved to safety during Spring ball and has blossomed. This season he's second on the team with 42 tackles, has 3.5 tackles for loss, and has broken up a pass.

In addition to playing the rover position this year, Jarrett has continued his early career path of being a primary punt returner. So far he's returned eight kicks for 176 yards and one touchdown. He's averaging 22.0 yards per kick and will certainly present a challenge for a Duke special teams unit that has been playing at a very high level over the course of 2012.

Off the field Jarrett has shouldered the load of working with his 21 year brother, who suffers from cerebral palsy. Here's a great article on that: Click Here.

2011 v. Duke: No stats.

4. DE Tyrel Wilson (6-1, 228, Jr.): He's not listed as the starter, though he has earned that distinction on one game this year, but Wilson has been the most productive defensive end on the Virginia Tech roster so far this eason.

Through six games Wilson has recorded 17 stops including 4.5 tackles for loss. He's added another two quarterback sacks while serving as the primary back up to James Gayle. Wilson is a bit small for a DE - especially at a program like Virginia Tech, but he makes up for the lack of size with good speed and burst off the line.

Meanwhile the starter, Gayle, has matched Wilson for production stride for stride this year. A more traditional defensive end in terms of size (6'4, 270), the fourth year junior earned second-team All-ACC selection a season ago after recording 38 tackles, including 12.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks, along with 20 quarterback hurries on the season. Whereas Wilson is speed more than power, Gayle has both traits (he has a 39.5" vertical jump and ran a 4.44 forty this offseason) and has 16 stops and four tackles for loss along with 2.0 sacks on the season

2011 v. Duke: Six tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss.

5. CB Kyle Fuller (6-0, 190, Jr.): Yet another 2011 All-ACC performer, Fuller played 850 snaps on defense and another 112 on special teams for the Hokies a season ago. During his time on defense, Fuller recorded 65 tackles, a team-high 14.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks on the season.

Fuller moved between corner and Tech's nickel back last season, which essentially replaces the outside linebacker, in certain situations. The Baltimore, Md., native is a strong open-field tackler with great closing speed. He made a game-saving tackle against Duke last year by stopping Blue Devils quarterback Sean Renfree for a loss on fourth down late in the fourth quarter when Duke was driving for a potential game-winning score.

Fuller will be tasked with sticking with Conner Vernon, the ACC's all-time leading receiver. A season ago he limited Vernon to just four catches on the afternoon, but did surrender a 39 yard strike in the second half.

2011 v Duke: Eight tackles, two tackles for loss, one fumble recover, three pass breakups, and one sack.

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