Early in the season, depth was an issue for Virginia Tech. There were plenty of positions where the Hokies were thin and needed their younger players to step up.
Even at defensive tackle, the Hokies’ depth was tested. Considered to be one of the stronger groups on the team, the injury to Nigel Williams has challenged younger players like Ricky Walker.
Walker, a redshirt-sophomore, has gotten the start for Virginia Tech at defensive tackle and has not disappointed. He’s combined for six tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss while helping teammate Woody Baron and the rest of the defense slow down opposing rushing attacks.
Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster said that Walker’s consistency and versatility at defensive tackle helped make him the next man up behind Williams.
“I think experience more than anything, and being consistent,” Foster said. “It’s also about playing the one position. Tim (Settle) plays really the one side, and Ricky can play both sides and Woody can play both sides. That’s kind of part of it too.”
Walker said that he’s been waiting for an opportunity like this, especially after sitting out last season to redshirt.
“It’s definitely an opportunity to take advantage of,” Walker said. “Just waiting patiently for my name to be called and take advantage of that.”
Walker may start again this weekend vs. Duke. Williams was in a no-contact jersey in Tuesday’s practice and his status is unknown at this time. Foster said that the coaching staff should know more about Williams’ chances to play come Wednesday and Thursday.
Deablo, Cunningham Making an Impact on Offense, Special Teams
The wide receiver was another position where the Hokies desperately needed depth. Virginia Tech Offensive Coordinator Brad Cornelsen said before the season that they needed six to eight receivers in order for the offense to run efficiently. One of the young guys to step up in that position has been true-freshman Divine Deablo.
“He works like he’s a veteran,” wide receivers coach Holmon Wiggins said of Deablo. “That’s the awesome thing we’ve seen from Divine. He comes, he puts his hard hat on every day, works his tail off, he gives us a lot of added depth that we needed, especially from a receiver position. He brings some work ethic, some character, and he’s pushing some of those guys on the side of him and also probably some of those guys in front of him.”
Deablo has only caught one pass for eight yards this season, but he’s played in all eight of Virginia Tech’s games. Deablo also starts on three of Virginia Tech’s special teams units and Special Teams Coordinator James Shibest said that he could work on a fourth in the near future. The experience is helping Deablo mature and grow as a player.
“Coming into the season, I knew I would be a big special teams player and like a backup receiver for Bucky Hodges, and not really get that much playing time, but I knew I’d learn a lot from him for these next upcoming years,” Deablo said.
Virginia Tech is high on Deablo’s potential as a wide receiver, but aren’t trying to rush things.
“He’s an explosive, lanky, tall, strong true-freshman,” said Jerod Evans “That’s what he is. He’s still a pup, but the athleticism and the gift is there, you can see it all over him.”
Another offensive player who’s burst onto the scene is Chris Cunningham. As a redshirt-freshman, Cunningham has caught three touchdown passes and been an important cog in the Hokies’ running attack as a blocker.
“He’s still improving,” Shibest said of Cunningham. “We’d like to get him out there a little bit more, but for a guy’s first year playing, and he’s made great progress, just needs to continue to get better. He has the tools, a lot of it is just maturity and knowing what to do a little bit better. He’s working at it and getting there, and we need him too.”
Specialists finding their rhythm for Virginia Tech
Shibest praised his special teams units as well, particularly Joey Slye and Mitchell Ludwig.
After starting off the season just 3-5 on field goal attempts with zero makes outside 40 yards, Slye has really found his rhythm. He made 12 of his 14 field goal attempts in October, including six vs. Pittsburgh.
“I think he’s continually gotten better throughout the year and improved, I think all the specialists have,” Shibest said. “Confidence means a lot. I think when you have that, at that position, it really helps you.”
Ludwig hasn’t been outdone. Ludwig started off the year slow, but downed nine of his 16 punts in October inside the opposing 20-yard-line. He’s averaging over 40 yards per punt and even had a 61-yard punt vs. Miami.
“He’s been exceptional when we got to get down there and place the ball,” Shibest said. “We’ve done a great job with field position I think and in the coverage units and keeping people pinned, but I think his confidence is growing and again, he had a tough situation with all of the rain and all that in North Carolina, but he’s responded well to that.”