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Breaking down the effectiveness for DE Ken Ekanem this season

With the start of fall camp just around the corner, we examine a few question marks for the Hokies this season. Second on our list is what to expect this season from defensive end Ken Ekanem.

In 2014, Ken Ekanem recorded 9.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles. Expectations were high last season because of that performance, but his production dipped just 4.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss in 2015. It was a curious dip in production that both Ekanem and fellow end-mate Dadi Nicolas saw last year, probably a nagging injury in Ekanem’s case (definitely in Dadi’s). 

Last year, Nicolas was supposed to draw the attention, allowing Ekanem to wreak havoc from the other side. 

This year, Nicolas is gone and the Hokies don’t really know what to expect out of the opposite of defensive end. It’s so uncertain over there that the possible dismissal of redshirt freshman defensive end Houshon Gaines, who was competing to be a backup, was considered a sizeable loss (he was not dismissed). 

So while much of the focus rests on who plays opposite of Ekanem, I think a worthy thing to ponder here in July is how important Ekanem is to Virginia Tech’s success in 2016. 

Let’s be honest - no matter who Charley Wiles picks as his starter at the other end spot - whether it’s Gaines, Vinny Mihota, Seth Dooley or someone else - he’s not going to be counted on to produce a ton. If you’re looking for a total number of sacks from that second end spot, I think around four or five is probably fair. 

So for the purposes of this exercise, let’s give that second defensive end spot five sacks from whatever combination is used there. If the goal is to compete for the ACC Coastal crown this year, what kind of production in terms of sacks from defensive ends does VT need? 

Let’s look back at past years where the Hokies won the division:
2005: 16 sacks from Daryl Tapp and Chris Ellis
2007: 15 sacks from Chris Ellis and Orion Martin
2008: 15.5 sacks from Jason Worilds and Orion Martin
2010: 10.5 sacks from Steven Friday and Chris Drager 
2011: 13 sacks from J.R. Collins and James Gayle

In the years where the Hokies did not win the division
2006: 8 sacks from Noland Burchette and Chris Ellis
2009: 11 sacks from Nekos Brown and Jason Worilds
2012: 6.5 sacks from James Gayle and J.R. Collins 
2013: 11 sacks from James Gayle and J.R. Collins
2014: 18.5 sacks from Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem
2015: 7 sacks from Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem

As you can see, Tech typically needs north of 13 sacks from its starting defensive ends to win the division. The outlier in the “won the division” set is 2010, but the Hokies got five sacks out of backup J.R. Collins, who started just one game that year. 

Anytime the Hokies defensive ends recorded less than 13, they didn’t win the Coastal. The outlier here is the 18.5 from Nicolas and Ekanem, which was a great year for ends but the loss of defensive tackle Luther Maddy before most of ACC play loomed large. 

So if we’re giving the unknown starter at defensive end five sacks, Ekanem would need to record at least eight for the Hokies to feel good about playing in Charlotte.

That’s a return to nearly the level of 2014, where he benefited from the fear other team showed Nicolas’ barrage of athleticism off the end. Can he do it? For sure, Ekanem has the talent and plenty of experience to do it. Seniors who have played as much as he tend to do well, as the Hokies have a boatload of depth and talent next to him at defensive tackle. 

But if he doesn’t, what are the consequences? The strength of the Tech defense is at defensive tackle. If opposing teams don’t have to commit resources to Ekanem or the other defensive end, how difficult will that make life difficult for the defensive tackles, who will be the focus for the each offensive line they face. 

In addition, as football has moved into a more pass-happy era, putting pressure on the quarterbacks has become essential. It’s why NFL teams load up on pass rushers. It’s why Ekanem leading the charge in terms of sacks is so important in 2016.

If Tech can’t get pressure on the quarterback, the rest of the defense will invariably be picked to shreds against good offensive teams (see: Tennessee, East Carolina, North Carolina, Miami, Duke, Notre Dame). That’s six games right there where it’s extra important. UVA doesn’t cause concern, GT doesn’t pass, Pitt is all James Conner, BC has no talent, Liberty is Liberty and Syracuse is an unknown. Against the better teams -such as Coastal foes UNC, Miami and Duke - getting to the quarterback will likely decide if Tech has to score 35 to have a chance to win. 

So Ken Ekanem, Charley Wiles, Bud Foster and Justin Fuente would like eight sacks out of you this year. Get at least that, if not more, and Tech fans could be booking a trip to Charlotte in early December.

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