Coming into the season, Virginia Tech’s defensive line was a bit of a question mark.
Sure, the Hokies knew who their starters were. Trevon Hill and Vinny Mihota both played significant time at defensive end in 2016, while Ricky Walker and Tim Settle both came off the bench for most of last season. All four had plenty of experience.
However, the unit wasn’t without questions. Could Tim Settle handle a starting role and a starter’s amount of snaps? What about Hill and Mihota, both of whom had offseason shoulder surgery? How about the second team, which plays a ton of snaps in defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s defense? Could those guys contribute at a high enough level?
It’s been a bit of a mixed bag. Virginia Tech’s starting four have played well, as each of the four has had to adapt to a new role. The Hokies have gotten into the backfield plenty this season, averaging seven tackles for loss per game (tied for 28th in FBS). Virginia Tech also stops the run at an effective rate, allowing 121.83 rushing yards per contest (31st in FBS). Even though the Hokies are only averaging two sacks per game (67th in FBS), defensive line coach Charley Wiles feels good about what his unit has accomplished through six games.
“It’s about winning, it’s about stopping people,” Wiles said. “A lot of times, we’re rushing three and dropping eight. It just depends what’s best — max coverage, max blitz, rushing four, so those things will come. We’re playing really good third down defense. I don’t get hung up on who’s doing what, I get hung up on that win and loss column, and getting off the field and giving our team a chance to win. To be perfectly honest, we’re getting some pressure and I like the way we’re playing up front and coming along right now. I don’t know how many sacks we’ve got, and it doesn’t matter.”
Considering Virginia Tech’s limitations, their performance on the defensive line has been commendable. Virginia Tech is still developing backup defensive ends Houshun Gaines and Emmanuel Belmar, and only has one backup defensive tackle they feel confident in — redshirt freshman Jarrod Hewitt. Hewitt has improved as the season has progressed.
“I still like his progression and where he’s going,” Foster said of Hewitt. “Is he there yet? No, but he’s working that way. We still need a guy to step up at that other spot, and that’s why you’re still seeing Vinny Mihota in there some a little bit.”
Mihota, a redshirt-junior, has been forced to play some of his snaps at defensive tackle. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound lineman has been relieved at end by Belmar and Gaines, both of whom have progressed a bit as well.
“You’re seeing Houshun Gaines continue to improve, and you see Belmar doing the same,” Foster said. “Again, are they where we want to be yet? No, they’re still inexperienced from an experience standpoint, but you’re seeing them get better each and every week. But we need those guys to be able to step up, and be as fresh as we can be moving down this critical stretch of the season.”
Since the backups are still a work in progress, the starters are logging more and more snaps. Foster and Wiles have traditionally kept their starting defensive linemen fresh by subbing them out regularly, but that hasn’t been the case as much this season. Fortunately for Tech, the Hokies are fifth in the country in opposing third down conversions, allowing the starters to get off the field often.
“It’s kind of been game-to-game,” Wiles said. “We’ve got eight guys. Now, are we rolling them like we’ve got eight starters? No, we’re not rolling them like that, but we’ve been able to spell throughout the year. The way teams play, if you get caught out on the field, we’re going to have to play our depth, it’s just the way it is. We’ve been fortunate enough to get off the field some, and it’s always good to play with your first group. That’s why you’ve got a depth chart and when they go three and out, that’s going to be better.”
Getting off the field will be imperative once again on Saturday. North Carolina is well-known for operating at a fast pace on offense, and could easily log 75-85 offensive plays on a successful day. Sure, the Tar Heels are 1-6 and don’t have the offensive talent they had last season, but the pace could still strain the Hokies.
“Yeah, they’re still going to test us that way,” Foster said. “Part of it has been with the injuries, the youth at quarterback and those kinds of things. I fully expect them to be the North Carolina team that’s played against us the last several years. Playing tempo, playing dynamic athletes. I know they’ve got some guys hurt, and that’s part of the nature of the game right now, and we’re in the same boat at a couple spots.”
Tech starters feel comfortable either way. If it becomes a track meet, 335-pound Tim Settle feels just fine.
“I feel like it doesn’t really faze us, because we go against it every day,” Settle said. “We practice stuff like that. Coach Foster, I think that’s like his big deal, as in practicing fast, so we keep that conditioning stuff up. We practice fast every day.”
Last year, this could have posed a problem for Settle. The big time redshirt-sophomore enrolled at Virginia Tech, and has slowly improved his conditioning every season. Now, Settle is more than fit to play against a quick pace.
“Definitely a lot from last year. Double the plays,” Settle said. “They told me that in the summer, so I’ve been preparing, and my mindset has been, ‘Ok, you’ve got to work.’ I’ve been working a little harder than last year, regarding conditioning.”
“Tim is really in good shape right now,” Wiles said. “I mean he’s playing anywhere from 50 to 55, 56 plays a game. He’s probably in the best shape of his life. That would be something you’d need to ask him, but from where he is now from when he got here, I mean it’s night and day. It’s a 180.”
Settle and battery mate Ricky Walker might just be hitting their stride. The two combined for 11 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss vs. Boston College on Oct. 7.
“I think that we’re starting to get that chemistry together,” Settle said. “I mean, just playing off of each other. (Walker) keeps us going, and the fact that he plays on the D-line, the expectations are to be on the same level as Rick.”
It’s been two weeks since that game, which has only amped up Settle and Walker’s intensity.
“We’re ready. We are geeked up to play. Excited,” Settle said. “I think everybody this past weekend was watching everybody play. I mean watching people play and not playing is kind of hard, but it was our bye week. I think everybody is amped up to get back on the field and keep this thing going, keep everything rolling.”