Position battles won’t be settled this spring, but dozens of Hokies have an opportunity over the next month to earn significant playing time on Virginia Tech’s defense.
This is no more apparent than on the defensive line. Redshirt senior Vinny Mihota, who is slated to be moved down to defensive tackle, is out for the spring. Redshirt junior Trevon Hill is going to be limited. Virginia Tech’s lack of depth at the position, plus the injuries, mean that extra reps will be available for those wishing to contribute.
On the surface, Virginia Tech’s depth at defensive tackle seems to be the biggest problem. Redshirt senior Ricky Walker has secured his spot, and Mihota could start there when he’s healthy. But outside of those two, there are big question marks. Redshirt sophomore Jarrod Hewitt has a chance to solidify his role as the third tackle, while redshirt junior Xavier Burke, redshirt junior Darius Fullwood and redshirt sophomore Jimmie Taylor will all be competing for the fourth spot.
Even with the apparent issues at tackle, head coach Justin Fuente seems more worried about defensive end.
“I think it’s mostly the young ends,” Fuente said. “You take Vinny and slide him down. He’s not going to go through the spring, but you know what you’ve got with Vinny. Jarrod Hewitt has made huge strides. I’m really pleased with his development. Then you’ve got big Ricky in there, kind of as your three guys. You need a fourth guy to come forward on the inside. Hopefully Xavier (Burke) does that, and it’s going to be the guys on the outside.
“Like, can we get those three freshmen defensive ends — redshirt freshmen (Nathan) Proctor, (Zion) DeBose and TyJuan (Garbutt) — to come forward. They’ve made large strides from a physical standpoint. It doesn’t mean that they’re great players yet, but this spring will be really important for those guys to see if we can get some production out of them.”
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster echoed Fuente’s sentiments on Monday. He noted that his defenses have always been better when they’ve had depth at defensive tackle, and that depth is something that still needs to be created.
“I’m not worried as much as I’d like to create a little depth at that spot,” Foster said. “I really like Jarrod Hewitt and where he came along last fall. I like what he’s doing this offseason, as far as keeping his weight down where I think he can move and be explosive, yet athletic and chase the ball. I like his leadership characteristics that are coming to the forefront, as far as how he’s approaching things. I think he’s a natural leader.”
“We need somebody to step up,” Foster said. “Whether it’s Xavier Burke, whether it’s Darius Fullwood, whether it’s Jimmie Taylor, we need to find somebody to step in and get that fourth or fifth spot. It could be Cam Goode. I’m excited about him.”
(Editor’s note: Goode doesn’t enroll until the summer.)
At linebacker, the depth doesn’t seem to be the issue. The issue is an overall lack of experience. Virginia Tech enters this spring without a single linebacker on the roster that is a junior or a senior. That kind of youth gives the Hokies room for growth, but also some growing pains.
“You don’t have a junior, let alone a senior,” Fuente said. “Nobody that’s played a meaningful rep at linebacker, which is certainly a challenge. I like the guys that we recruited, I like the way they’re approaching it. There’s plenty of opportunity for the guys that we’ve got here, the guys that are coming in the summertime, to make their mark and move forward. But I don’t know if I’ve ever gone into a season without a junior linebacker.”
Foster said on Monday that sophomore Rayshard Ashby, redshirt freshman Rico Kearney and redshirt sophomore Daniel Griffith are working at mike linebacker, while sophomore Dylan Rivers, redshirt freshman Jaylen Griffin and freshman Alan Tisdale are working at backer. Tech will have more options in the summer, when freshmen Dax Hollifield and Keshon Artis arrive, but for now, that’s Foster’s group.
“They’re willing, they’ve worked hard, their weight room numbers have been impressive, how they’re approaching things in early morning workouts and their effort — I will say this, particularly the young guys, particularly Rayshard Ashby, Dylan Rivers, (Rico) Kearney, some of those guys have seen Andrew and Tremaine, and Sean Huelskamp, Anthony Shegog, they were great mentors for them as far as work ethic. On the field, off the field, in the weight room, how to approach things. I like the demeanor of these young guys and I’m looking forward to spring with them.”
Virginia Tech’s defense must replace starters in the secondary too. The Hokies need two new starting cornerbacks, as well as a new starting free safety. Senior whip/nickelback Mook Reynolds is out for the spring, so Tech needs to fill his role, too.
Former blue-chip prospect Devon Hunter is going to get a look at whip. The 6-foot, 218-pound sophomore has a combination of size and athleticism that the coaches like in the alley.
“I think he’s excited about it, having a chance to go out there and do more things and show that he’s more versatile,” said co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Galen Scott. “I know he’s played high (safety) for us this last year, and be able to play in the alley a little more, be able to blitz and do different types of things. With his size and his speed, I think he’s excited about it and we’re excited about seeing him there and seeing what he looks like a little bit.”
Redshirt sophomore Tyree Rodgers and sophomore Bryce Watts are two younger options there, while junior Jovonn Quillen and senior Adonis Alexander are two veteran options. Redshirt freshman Caleb Farley is moving to cornerback as well, giving the Hokies another choice. Fuente signaled on Monday that his veteran corners, possibly referring to Quillen and Alexander, need to step up and be better.
“I would like to play (Farley) on offense as much as anybody, but the bottom line is, where we’re at in the secondary right now, between our youth and between — we do have some older players that have been less than consistent for us,” Fuente said. “So between our youth and our lack of accountability/consistency with some of our older guys in the secondary, we felt like in the long run, that’s his best spot.”