August Camp: Pay Attention to Defensive Line Depth

Defensive depth is a concern for defensive line Coach Wiles. [HokieSports.com]

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).

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.

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.

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Comments

Luther Maddy once said HokieNation has nothing to worry about and the defense will be fine. Ive stopped worried ever since.
Its the offense that needs stepping up.

sadly the downvote trolls are aplenty these days....

have a leg to balance

Where else are they going to learn how to coach the game? Certainly not from Hooville!

I support Coach Frank Beamer.

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+1 to all of you! Pound that LOLUVA troll into the dirt!

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This is why you can never "over recruit" defensive linemen. Hopefully DeBerry and Sweat see that they could get quick PT if they earn it.

Pour some Beer on it

Wow, Ricky Walker has grown 2 inches the last few months. Maybe by the time the season starts he will be 6'5 ! He seems to be growing in height as fast as Hodges.

georgebd

I was kind of wondering if that was the usual our guys are "10 ft tall and shoot bolts of lightening out of their arses," talk or if he did legitimately grow 2 inches. If so that is some BS (solely from a selfish I wish I was a little bit taller and a baller...), i stopped growing in like 8th grade.

in Fuller we trust

I'm most worried about the Hokie front 7. In fact, I expect a pretty big slide in the rushing defense department. As athletic as Dadi is, he hasn't shown the ability to be an every-down DE and consistently stop the run. Add in new starters Ekenam, Marshall, Williams, Clarke, and whatever they decide to do with the whip, that's a lot of uncertainty. Depth, is also crazy thin.

I think a 50th rank defense is a reality. I see opposing teams able to run at-will on this unit (like BC last year). I hope the young guys prove me wrong. I wish I was optimistic as last year, when I predicted a top-5 defense. But I can't. Not when 6-key contributors of last year's front 7 graduated.

I'd be much more worried if I had not watched the final scrimmage before the spring game. If our offense is even average and the defense performs like they did that day, we have nothing to worry about. It was like watching the 85 Bears against Western Carolina

Viva El Guapo

Agreed. Watched the D-Line in the Spring and I was impressed, the quickest I've seen on the college level. They blow off the ball and are in the backfield before the OL has time to react. They might not be huge but they're athletic.

Tyrod did it Mikey, Tyrod did it!!

I'm pretty confident we'll put out an athletic unit. Given our experience in the secondary and some leadership on the defensive line, I expect we'll be able to assemble the other parts pretty quickly while leaning on our experience. RVD and Ekanem are both guys that have been around for a few years, and even with only a little playing time, they aren't as green as their snap count would suggest.

It seems every year, though, that we're talking about how we need the second units to step up, and that we'd like to be a little more solid in our first two groups than we ever seem to be. Can anyone tell me when we went into a season with the coaches very confident in our first two defensive line units (particularly)? I'd also be curious about the last time we were solid at LB, because every year it seems to be the same questions about at least a major part of those two units.

I don't know about the coaches, but I didn't have many worries about last years two-deep at this time of year.

What about when we had Xavier Adibi, James Anderson & Vince Hall?

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Fosterball

That was the last time I had loads of confidence in our LB core.

Loved Adibi. He was amazing and even better on NCAA. Just select him and sack the QB before he ever had a chance to throw. The good old days of having time to play video games...

in Fuller we trust

I just hope our offense is good enough to put cupcakes away early enough to allow for quality playing time for all our 2's.

If we are still playing most our 1's midway through the 3rd quarter of W&M, I fear it'll be a long season.

This is something I've always been torn about. Obviously, I'd like to see our backups gain as much experience as possible. But at the same time, I'd like for our starters to get more time to mesh together and get more comfortable with each other during an actual game before OSU. I guess I'll just have to trust the coaches' decision on what they think is the most beneficial.

Nice write up...this is one thing I am very interested in seeing play out this season. I'm used to Bud subbing constantly at the D-line to keep them fresh 8, 9 or sometimes ten man rotations. Really curious to see how Bud and Wiles handle it.

Sean

Ekanem is going to surprise some people...

In Sam Rogers we trust.

right? it's like a celebrity couple name, its great.

"We're your family right?!? You love your family right?!?"-Dadi Nicholas
"That kid you're talking to right there, I think he played his nuts off! And you can quote me on that shit!" -Bud Foster

Lets just hope we don't have any injures to any of our starters on the defensive line because that would be awful. I'm a little worried about that.

Wouldn't be surprised to see some 3-4 if Foster wants to get creative with the roster. I feel like there's a lot of depth at the 3-4 DE type and at LB on the roster than for 4-3 DEs. Dadi has been played as a OLB before and Ekanem was recruited as a OLB by Notre Dame if I remember right. As for ILBs that could play 3-4 OLB there has actually been some playable depth with McKinnon and Motuapuaka showing promise.

Imagine a 3-4 heavy package w/ the line being Marshall, Maddy, and Nigel Williams with LBs being Dadi/Ekanem, Chase, Deon Clark, and Motuapuaka.

While the lack of depth may suggest playing only 3 on the line would be better, Maddy is not a 3-4 type NT. He's not a big bodied space eater who will eat up double teams. I just don't see it working out as good in real life as it might in NCAA '14.

I actually thought about this too for a little while, but I realized it was a bit of a pipe dream to expect our players to be able to pick up a COMPLETELY different system in time for the season. I'm not going to lie though, it is terrifying only having 4 scholarship defensive ends on the current roster with no incoming freshman

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@HaydenDubya

He uses a 3-3 stack scheme with a bunch of blitzing in the spring, with Marshall at end and Ekanem coming off the field...

Viva El Guapo

Oh yea I completely forgot about that. To me it seems odd that he takes Ken off the field while leaving a much smaller Dadi on. Can you explain the reasoning behind that?

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@HaydenDubya

Because yelling "Who's your Ken!" doesn't sound as good as "Who's your Dadi!"

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So the 11 db defense will be used sometime this year to compliment the 11 qb offense? :)

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We are a heck of alot better than we have been in the past . Marshall , Hopkins , and Maddy had to play significant minutes as true frosh because we were so thin in there in years past . I think Mihota is going to be really good and Williams is starting caliber guy, add in Hansen and Walker and I think we are fine there and may be really good . DE is a little less but we can move Marshall or Mihota out in and emergency . Ekanem is by all indications really in good shape and he is a load but can he stay healthy ? Dooley lots of potential and Alford better than people think I think they step up and will be solid but we don't need any injuries. Barron is player and his return would be welcomed but remember this time last year Barron was and unknown as was Williams and I think Walker ,Mihota and Hansen we are ahead of last year in the depth department even though they are unknowns Mihota and Hansen were here during the spring . Walker may be and upgrade and could be a real Bell Cow in there starting this year . Whoever the guy is who said top 50 defense well I would take the under on that we will be top 20 unless we have a rash of injuries . Most of the teams we play are spread types and are not power run teams so they will play to our defense strenth. We may give up more yds on the ground but not by a much . If we stay healthy on the D we will be very good IMHO

Coastal 1