Much has been made this preseason about Virginia Tech’s defensive line depth, or lack thereof. The Hokies must replace three starters from last season, so the concerns are warranted.
With Virginia Tech’s season-opener less than two weeks away, defensive coordinator Bud Foster is still figuring things out.
The lack of depth at defensive tackle seems to be the biggest issue for Virginia Tech right now. Behind entrenched starters Ricky Walker and Tim Settle, the Hokies are still looking for reliable contributors who can play big roles off the bench.
“That still is a question mark,” Foster said. “I really like where Jarrod Hewitt is, how he’s come along. I think he’s been one of our most improved guys, particular at the interior side. Jimmie Taylor, I think, has been really consistent, very rugged playing for us right now. We need a fifth guy to really step up. Darius Fullwood, he just needs to be consistently good. He has some things, he needs to be physical at the point of attack, recognize play-side and back-side a little bit quicker, which is critical.”
Foster added that Xavier Burke has worked at defensive tackle, but missed the early portions of camp as he recovered from a knee injury. Foster said that as of now, Jarrod Hewitt and Jimmie Taylor have filled the remaining spots in the two deep, with Darius Fullwood and Burke trailing behind.
“I’ve definitely been seeing some progress from the spring,” Tim Settle said. “Them being coachable, and listening to what Coach (Charley) Wiles is telling them, them focusing on what Coach Wiles says to us instead of what he just says to them. I’ve seen them grow. I was kind of scared at first, but I’m more comfortable with how they’re playing now.”
“Those guys are coming along,” Ricky Walker said. “Coach Wiles is splitting them out evenly with the reps. We just want to make sure we don’t have a big drop from the ones to the twos. I feel like they’re coming along.”
Because Tech’s depth at defensive tackle is thin at best, the Hokies are indeed exploring an option that would slide defensive end Vinny Mihota inside in certain situations. Mihota, who enrolled as a defensive tackle, has since become the most experienced starter at defensive end. Now, it sounds like Tech is preparing to use him at tackle.
“He’s a big, physical kid that’s twitchy, and that can help us in there if we do have some injuries, and I do like how some of our ends have come along as well,” Foster said.
The improvement in defensive end depth has soothed Virginia Tech’s concerns about moving Mihota. Foster said that redshirt-freshman Emmanuel Belmar and redshirt-sophomore Houshun Gaines are the two backups to Mihota and Trevon Hill, while other ends have improved as well.
“Those are a couple guys that give us an opportunity right there,” Foster said. “Ray Minor does some good things, he just needs to be consistently good. With all of those guys, that’s part of it, but that’s a group of guys that have worked extremely hard.”
Hokies streamlining wide receiver responsibilities
Virginia Tech’s search for dependable wide receivers has been well-publicized, but the Hokies’ offensive scheme aids them in that search. Instead of making things complicated, Virginia Tech’s offensive coaches have tried to simplify the responsibilities of each wide receiver.
“We went through the same situation at Memphis, and we did the same thing at TCU,” said head coach Justin Fuente. “The crux of it was to make it easy enough so young guys could play, because we had to play so many young people. It did us no good to have those guys standing on the bench, because they didn’t know what to do. It’s pared down pretty well for them. That doesn’t always mean they’re playing the right way or doing the right thing, but I think it’s pretty straightforward and pretty simple for them.”
Instead of running an incredibly diverse and complex route tree and burdening receivers with too many responsibilities, the Hokies have focused on streamlining the position, which makes it easier to play younger players.
“Just your base calls. Where to get lined up, there’s not a whole lot of adjustment with splits,” Brad Cornelsen said. “We have some route adjustment, but not a ton. We want those guys to get good at the details of what they’re doing. We don’t want the assignment to be so overwhelming that they can’t get off of press coverage, run a good route, get separation and concentrate on the ball.”