Virginia Tech opened up preseason camp yesterday with a lot of unsettled positions on the depth chart. All members of Hokie Nation are paying attention to who will earn the starting quarterback job. As they should be, it's the most important position on the field. Just as fans are keeping abreast of who will line up under center, most are following how the running back rotation will settle itself. However, a group that only the zealots are keeping watch of, at least in my estimation, is the defensive line.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster and d-line coach Charley Wiles are tasked with replacing household names James Gayle, J.R. Collins, and Derrick Hopkins, as well as productive and trustworthy backup end Tyrel Wilson. Foster and Wiles have such a proven track record cranking out capable d-lines that fit their gap attacking scheme, that cultivating an effective two-deep is usually a footnote rather than headline.
Make no mistake about it, there's plenty of 4-star talent on the roster. The issues are except for Luther Maddy, Corey Marshall, and Dadi Nicolas, most of the players Tech is counting on range in inexperience, and there's limited depth. In a perfect world, Tech wraps up camp and Wiles has a second team d-line that he trusts as much as the starting unit. Wiles has favored rotating his first and second team defensive line groups to keep both units fresh. That allows him to play the aggressive gap-shooting style that best fits his quick, but smaller, defensive tackles. Maintaining stamina is a critical need to combat opposing offenses on Tech's schedule featuring gameplans that push the tempo and pace of play to wear out defensive fronts.
Prior to Virginia Tech releasing its initial injury report on Monday, I felt good about the four d-tackles primed to see the field. Maddy has three seasons of experience under his belt, and he's one of, if not the, top d-tackle in the ACC. Corey Marshall has always had the skills to play the nose, showed that in spring, and now he's prepared to do the dirty work inside. Wiles trusted and depended on freshman Nigel Williams and Woody Baron last season. They played 140 and 129 snaps at d-tackle in 2013, respectively.
After those four, there's not much wiggle room and since it was released that Woody Baron is still recovering from offseason right ankle surgery and might redshirt, Foster's unit has the same problem at tackle as end, relying on an inexperienced player(s).
Wiles said even with lack of DE depth, Vinny Mihota will stay on the inside at tackle. Is a little ahead of Wade Hansen at backup DT spot.— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) August 5, 2014
Vinny Mihota and Ricky Walker were two highly regarded 2014 signees with a ton of potential. Mihota has the benefit of participating in spring ball. Both bulked up over the summer to prepare for the possibility of playing this season. Mihota jumped from 6-5, 249 to 264 pounds. Before camp Walker was listed at 6-1, 279, and now he's 6-3, 286.
Vinny has a first step and burst that pops off film. Tech seems to be depending on the, uncharacteristically tall, for the position, Mihota, as its backup nose / 1-technique tackle with Baron sidelined. His quick first step will help him beat centers and guards off the ball, but he needs to perfect maintaining his fit and making his plays. Walker's high school film told the story of a versatile player at both the 1- and 3-technique, who played with low pad level, and maintend gap fits. Walker is a terrific leverage player who understands how to challenge the blocker, defeat the block, and maintain body control to make the tackle rather than just using pure athleticism to run around blocks (which results in losing a gap fit and opening a big hole for ball carriers).
At defensive end Tech is banking on its entire two-deep to step up. Dadi Nicolas is an athletic freak, but has never been an every down player. He's a playmaker though, he had a terrific spring, and it's encouraging that he shot up from 218 to 231 pounds. Wiles believes he can play at 250 and maintain his speed. As top dog, he'll need to productive over long stretches, and not just favorable down and distances. He also will need to prove that he can maintain gap integrity when big teams choose to run right at him. Nothing makes me think he cannot do just that.
Ken Ekanem got a taste of d-end last season (7 snaps). By the end of spring ball, Ekanem separated himself from Seth Dooley at end and became the exclusive No. 1 at that position. Ekanem was a highly recruited player out of Centreville High School who finally appears to be healthy. He apparently had an excellent summer of conditioning.
Looking at a new super iron hokie!— Kenjamin Ekanem (@Ekannibal) July 30, 2014
But again, with just 7 live snaps growing pains wouldn't be unexpected. Ekanem has to generate pass rush while not losing contain when Bud Foster brings four, and he must faithfully execute his stunts when Foster utilizes a pressure when it is designed to free up a blitzing linebacker.
I do feel good about about the first group of Nicolas and Ekanem. Nicolas has dynamic, explosive playmaking ability, and about as much experience as a player can have without being a returning starter. Ekanem had and excellent spring games in 2014, and by all accounts he generated consistent pass rush throughout this spring.
Not worrying about the backup DEs requires a leap of faith. Dewayne Alford played 19 defensive snaps last season, but was dinged up during spring ball. Seth Dooley redshirted last season, and got beat out by Ekanem in an open competition during spring at end. Dooley had several moments, especially in the spring game, where the game seemed to be moving a little fast for him. Wiles has to trust that Dooley and Alford can be productive or he'll be forced to play his starters more than he'd like to. If he doesn't, one injury could force Dooley and Alford learn some on the job. That proposition is not a good one.
A possible injury is what makes Tech's depth at end, or lack thereof, real.
Tendinitis is usually a minor issue. However, I don't know how Tech would handle a major injury to one of its two starters. The options are some combination trusting Dooley or Alford and sliding Corey Marshall or Mihota outside for stretches. That's not great. Ideally, Tech is in situations early on in the season where they have comfortable leads and can get Dooley and Alford valuable game experience for when it comes time to depend on them.