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STEVE DESHAZO: Defense remains the Hokies’ strength
BLACKSBURG—If you’re a Virginia Tech football fan and it’s change you want, pay attention to the offensive side of the ball. The Hokies will feature eight new starters this fall and plan to use more of the spread formation that’s in vogue around the nation.
Sometimes, though, there’s comfort in the familiar. And the guys on the other side of the ball plan to be their usual stingy, nasty selves.
“We feel we have the talent on our side of the ball to be the best defense that’s ever come through here,” junior cornerback Antone Exum said Saturday at Tech’s annual preseason media day.
Such hyperbole is common in August, but keep two things in mind:
The bar is set pretty high in Blacksburg, where coordinator Bud Foster oversaw the nation’s top-ranked defenses in 2005 and ’06. And this group has a shot at doing it for a third time.
Nine starters return from a unit that ranked seventh in scoring defense and 10th in yards allowed in 2011. Then there are three more players who started at least four games as fill-ins for injured teammates.
There’s no shortage of talent, experience—or confidence.
“We are a nasty D,” senior linebacker Bruce Taylor said.
Added senior linebacker Jeron Gouveia–Winslow: “We can do it all. Every part of the game: pass rush, stuffing the run. We’d definitely like to hold up the tradition.”
To do so, the Hokies can’t afford a repeat of last season’s two performances against Clemson. Tech allowed 61 points and 780 yards in two 2011 losses to the Tigers—including one in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
Tech visits Clemson on Oct. 20. There are other challenges, starting with Georgia Tech’s vaunted spread option attack in a nationally televised season opener Labor Day night, and a home game against ACC favorite Florida State on Nov. 8. If the Hokies are ranked highly on defense after Election Day, they will have earned it.
“Last year, we made big strides from the 2010 season,” said junior defensive end J.R. Collins, a Brooke Point High School graduate. “Now, it’s about taking it to the next level.”
Collins had six sacks as a sophomore last year, but has begun practice behind sophomore Corey Marshall after being late for a meeting last week.
Asked for similarities among his best defensive units, Foster cited strong cornerback play. (“We put our guys on an island,” he explained.) Tech figures to have two good ones in Exum (a converted safety) and junior Kyle Fuller—although the youth of their backups is “a major concern,” according to Foster.
Exceptional pass rushers (Cornell Brown, Corey Moore, Darryl Tapp) have been another constant.
Foster’s latest threat is junior James Gayle, who has gained 50 pounds (to 269) since arriving three years ago and has a goal of double-digit sacks in 2012. Said Gouveia–Winslow: “He’s a beast.”
The return of veteran linebackers Taylor and Couveia–Winslow from injury-plagued 2011 seasons has eased the loss of standout Tariq Edwards, who hasn’t practiced since last fall while rehabbing a knee injury.
But sophomore Jack Tyler gained invaluable experience as a replacement last fall. And Foster is so high on redshirt freshman Ronny Vandyke that the Hokies decided to use star recruit Trey Edmunds as a running back rather than a linebacker.
The pieces are in place for another dominating defense. But as Clemson proved last year, today’s modern offenses are hard to shut down completely.
Still, these Hokies aren’t conceding anything—which is the way Foster likes it.
“We’ve got two of the better corners in the league, and our front can be one of the best in the country,” he said. “I’m encouraged and excited, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443