In my review of Trevon Hill, I highlighted the tremendous need the Hokies have for immediate contributors at defensive end. Hill seems destined to play stud defensive end, where he will line up over right offensive tackle in four-man fronts and could shift inside comfortably if required in the Bear or 30. Houshun Gaines, a 6-4, 220 pound signee from Nash Central High School in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, will have a similar opportunity to compete with Seth Dooley for the defensive end spot behind Ken Ekanem.
Gaines, rated a three-star defensive end by the 247Sports Composite, had a strange recruitment. His original committment to Florida wasn't accepted by the Gators. He verballed to the Hokies at the end of December, and Tech held off a late push by Vanderbilt to flip Gaines.
When you watch film on Gaines, he certainly echoes many of the attributes that Hokies fans are accustomed to seeing in Charley Wiles recruits. Gaines has tremendous first step twitch off the line of scrimmage, and can bend his body to get flat down the line of scrimmage in pursuit. He is versatile, having contributed at outside linebacker, wide receiver, and as an impact player on special teams. Gaines is typical of many young defensive ends with great quickness. He has a tendency to rely on his speed to get around the edge rather than using his speed and technique to take the shortest route to the ball carrier, but he has the speed, bend, and frame that afford him the opportunity to learn.
First and foremost, Gaines first step at the snap stands out. He has excellent quickness off the ball without getting overextended and losing his balance. Here is a great example. The offense runs a naked bootleg off counter action.
Gaines gets three yards of depth into the backfield almost immediately while angling to the inside behind the pulling guard. At the mesh point, instead of lunging at the ball, he breaks down and identifies the ball carrier as the quarterback. Gaines then demonstrates the reach and athleticism to change directions and drag down the quarterback. That quickness is telling in almost every defensive line snap you see on film. When combined with his consistent ability to attack the mesh point on option plays and break down where he can defend both the dive and the keep, he can be very productive defending the running game in today's spread systems. Here is a great example of Gaines squeezing on the dive enough to force the quarterback to keep the ball.
The offense runs a dive option with a screen package in the flat. Gaines is the option man that the quarterback has to read. Gaines squeezes inside so the quarterback reads that he is taking the dive. Gaines keeps his body in good position to recover and makes the play on the quarterback after the fake.
Next, Gaines is impressive in pursuit. He is a high motor guy and often chases the ball down despite being aligned away from the play. Here, the offense gets the edge on the opposite side of Gaines.
Gaines takes a bit of a circuitous route through the backfield, yet still chases down the running back from behind. This is impressive speed, however you see some of the areas where Gaines will need to work to improve. On back side pursuit, he has a tendency to get a bit too far up field. This requires him to turn his shoulders to the sideline. As I have often noted, if the offense is running a reverse or counter, turning your chest to face the sideline makes you a big target. You would like Gaines to lead inside with his right shoulder, and then take a better pursuit angle. The effort is impressive, but he won't catch an ACC running back from behind on this kind of play using that pursuit angle. Finally, Gaines has a tendency to play with a bit of a high pad level. As we will see in the next clip, he does a good job of protecting his chest with his hands against running plays, but until a couple of seasons in the strength and conditioning program he can't play that high and not have issues with athletic 300 pound tackles.
Hand leverage is an interesting issue with Gaines. He does a very good job using his hands to take on and then shed blocks, as you can see here on this outside zone. He extends into the tackle to prevent the tackle from sealing inside. He then beats the tackle to the edge and pulls down the back.
At the same time, most of Gaines quarterback pressure comes from pure speed rushes. He beats the blocker around the edge and makes the play. As an evaluator, I would like to see Gaines compliment that speed with some leverage moves that will force the blocker to account for an inside move. He is capable, as he demonstrated on a nasty swim move for a sack. This kind of move, however, only appeared once in his film.
While I expect Trevon Hill to have a better chance at being an immediate contributor based on his ability to take on blocks and be disruptive against both the run and the pass, Gaines certainly can challenge Seth Dooley and Yoshuah Nijman at the other end spot. While Dooley and Dwayne Alford held up well against blocking, they were not very disruptive. As I noted in my review, I don't think that Nijman has the twitch to be a natural at end, and I expect he will move inside.
That leaves Hill and Gaines the opportunity to be in the rotation behind Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem. Both Hill and Gaines have the ability to be disruptive at the point of attack. Foster can afford some growing pains standing up to run blocking because his defensive tackles will draw so much attention inside. Those double teams on studs like Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall free up a quick edge player like Gaines to accentuate his best attribute (speed) out in space.
Gaines will need to focus on building his strength without losing that edge speed over the summer, and make the commitment to being a defensive end. That commitment is key, because Gaines did muse over Vanderbilt telling him that he could be an outside linebacker. In the Hokies' system, I don't believe that there is any chance of Gaines moving out to backer. His skill set is well suited to defensive end. He looked much more natural on film as an end. Finally, the Hokies biggest defensive need is at end. Once Gaines makes a full commitment to the defensive end position and improves his strength, pad level, and leverage technique, I fully expect him to be a multi-year contributor at Virginia Tech.