CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Playing mike linebacker in any defensive scheme comes with some level of responsibility. Playing mike in Bud Foster’s defensive scheme comes with a great level of responsibility.
To play the position, you have to have not only a total understanding of the scheme and everyone’s role, but you have to be vocal. You have to make sure you get your battery mates lined up. In this area, Virginia Tech mike linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka had a lot of growing up to do.
“When I first got here, I hadn’t heard Andrew speak,” said Head Coach Justin Fuente. “Now, he’s still not the most talkative guy, but it’s certainly much more so than a year ago.”
“Early on, he definitely used to be on me,” Motuapuaka said. “He thinks I do a pretty good job now.”
Indeed, Virginia Tech is pleased with Motuapuaka’s development. The two-year starter took his licks early on his career, but is now the quiet anchor for Tech’s defense. Along with defensive tackle Ricky Walker, Motuapuaka has taken full ownership of the Lunch Pail Defense.
“There’s definitely some young guys on the team who don’t know how Coach Fuente is,” Motuapuaka said. “I think there are still enough guys who were on the team last year who know how to get it done, and I think that they can learn from us, just take things, see how we operate and how we carry ourselves.”
Fuente said that with seniors like Chuck Clark, Ken Ekanem and Woody Baron gone, Motuapuaka feels like he has to step up not just his play, but his leadership.
“I just think they’re empowered,” Fuente said. “I really do, I just think (Motuapuaka and Walker) feel empowered. I think they feel comfortable in their own skin to speak up. They’ve done enough to be able to tell somebody else what to do. That takes some self-confidence, some maturity, and ultimately, I think somebody has to say, ‘It’s okay for you to do this. People will listen,’ and people do listen to those two guys. It’s been fun to watch.”
Motuapuaka leads a defense this year that has talent, but also some questions. The Hokies are thin along the defensive line, as most of the potential backups at end and tackle have little to no experience. Because Virginia Tech is so young and thin on the line, Motuapuaka has to keep them on an even keel.
“Really, just letting them know I got their back,” Motuapuaka said. “Just letting them know, ‘I’m still here with you.’ I feel like young guys, when they put their hand in the ground, they just feel like no one is helping them behind them. Just letting them know everything is all right.”
Since the end of last season, Motuapuaka has begun taking players under his wing. Just like Motuapuaka learned from older players, he’s paying it forward.
“That’s what a program should be… that’s how it should work,” Fuente said. “You have this frame of reference of the older guy that helped you along, and then you become that person, it’s how you continue things along. Sometimes, guys just need to know people are listening. Sometimes when you tell a guy, ‘Hey listen, I just want you to know everyone on this team respects you and if you say jump, they’re going to jump.’”
Among the young players Motuapuaka is mentoring is his fellow linebacker, Tremaine Edmunds. Edmunds, a junior, is drawing plenty of preseason praise, making the Bednarik Award, Nagurski Trophy and Butkus Award watch lists. Edmunds started all 14 games last season for the Hokies, totaling 18.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. His presence should help Motuapuaka make his job easier.
“He just has it all, really,” Motuapuaka said. “He has the size, the speed… (Tremaine) is a freak. He’s been definitely taking strides and making his game better, studying film and stuff like that.”
For as much as Motuapuaka has grown as a leader, he still presents a calm, collected demeanor. He walks quietly and speaks quietly, but makes his presence known when necessary.
“I say what I need to, when it’s needed,” Motuapuaka said. “I don’t waste time, just talking. I feel like some guys, when they get into that role, they just say stuff because they can say stuff. I don’t really say anything until it’s needed.”
He might have to say more and speak a little louder, with Virginia Tech lacking seniority on the offensive side of the ball as well. The Hokies are now without 2016 leaders Sam Rogers, Jonathan McLaughlin and Augie Conte, as well as stud receiver Isaiah Ford, all of whom served in significant leadership roles last season. Tech will also have to replace their production, which could mean Tech’s defense has to pick up the slack.
“We just focus on what we can control,” Motuapuaka said. “We can’t really control what the offense does. All we can control is getting better, and trying to reach our goal, which is being the best defense in the nation.”