On Thursday night we looked at the offense and the strides that Virginia Tech is looking to make on that side of the ball. Now, we’ll examine the defense as the summer workouts have ended and camp will soon begin.
The attrition to the Hokies’ defense has been well documented this offseason. Greg Stroman, Brandon Facyson and Andrew Motuapuaka graduated. Tremaine Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds, and Tim Settle declared for the NFL draft. Adonis Alexander was declared ineligible and Mook Reynolds was dismissed. That’s without even mentioning Jeremy Webb, who is out for the year with an achilles injury, or Cam Goode, who was released from his scholarship.
“It’s going to sound like a broken record at a lot of positions in terms of the youth, but I do believe this – that we have some talented guys,” Bud Foster said. “We have those types of guys at a lot of spots, but just don’t have the experience like we have had in the past. But I really like this group of kids.”
Ricky Walker, Vinny Mihota, Trevon Hill and Reggie Floyd are the only returning starters on defense. However, one man returns for his 32nd season at Virginia Tech, and that’s Foster. Despite those staggering losses, the defensive unit has a quiet confidence about themselves along with the ‘In Bud We Trust’ mantra.
“I know that our kids know this, but Bud is not going to make any tackles out there,” head coach Justin Fuente said. “He’s going to line them up, coach them up and he’s going to get them in the right position, but ultimately they’re going to have to take ownership of what they’re doing.”
The defensive line is the most experienced group that Virginia Tech has, and it’s a pretty darn good one. The unit is anchored by Ricky Walker, who was deserving of selection on the All-ACC Preseason Football Team if not for the amount of talent that Clemson has stockpiled. Vinny Mihota moves inside to defensive tackle this year and has put on significant weight to accompany the move, upping himself to 297 pounds. Mihota has been recovering from knee surgery and appears to be all systems go.
“Right now, in a perfect world, Vinny Mihota would take over Tim’s [Settle] spot, and he has had a great offseason,” Foster said. “He will probably be turned loose the second week fully in camp. Ricky [Walker] is obviously our bell cow for who he is, and we gave him our Lunch Pail to kick this thing off for us.”
Trevon Hill and Houshun Gaines will be the edge rushers at defensive end after the duo combined for 8.5 sacks last year. The Hokies have a litany of young, talented guys who are next in line including Emmanuel Belmar, Nathan Proctor, TyJuan Garbutt and Zion DeBose.
The area of concern for the Hokies is the depth at defensive tackle following the news that incoming freshman Cam Goode was no longer a part of the program.
“I’m not going to go into any details about that,” Fuente said. “We wish Cam [Goode] the best and want him to do well. That’s why we gave him a release to anywhere that he wants to go and we’ll be happy to support him.”
“We’re counting on Darius Fullwood. He had a good summer, so it’s time for him to step up and play for us,” Foster said. “Clay Dean can come in and fight and scratch and claw. Sometimes you need that guy in that position. We’re hoping Robert Porcher IV will be a guy who can step up and be the guy we think he can be. He’s been limited in having shoulder surgery with his upper body strength. That’s who we have right there. Is there a guy from the defensive end spot who can come in? You’ve got Jimmie Taylor, who is still working at defensive tackle. You have Zion Debose. We talked about that with Zion, but I’d like to keep him at defensive end. He’s a play away from maybe being the next guy for us at that spot. We need a second line of defensive tackles because that’s a position where you can get nicked up really quick.”
While defensive line was the most experienced position group for the Hokies, the linebackers are easily the most inexperienced unit. There’s a total of zero starts from any of the linebackers on the roster.
“We will be as green as I’ve ever been starting out,” Foster said. “You have one guy that played four or five snaps on defense in Dylan Rivers, and then Rayshard Ashby who played on special teams, then after that there is no experience – and experience is the best teacher. But I really like these guys.”
As Foster alluded, Rivers (backer) and Ashby (mike) are the projected starters heading into camp. Rivers and Ashby are both sophomores and the veterans of the group, with a bunch of freshman looking to carve out a role.
“Rayshard has really solidified himself, I thought he had the best spring of anybody with being consistent,” Foster said. “I thought Dylan played really well the last week and a half, I think he was trying to do everything exact and I was wanting him to pin his ears back and play. I really like the battle we are going to have at that spot, with [Rivers], Jaylen Griffin and Alan Tisdale. I’ve been really impressed with Dax Hollifield. When we put the pads on and if he hits like I know he is going to and the way he’s picked things up, he’s everything we thought he could be.”
Hollifield is the prized recruit coming into the class as the four star linebacker from Shelby, North Carolina. With a guy as highly regarded as Hollifield, the Hokies are looking at the 6-foot-1, 243-pound linebacker as someone who could earn reps at both the mike and backer.
“Dax might be the guy who could do that,” Foster said. “If you guys followed his recruiting and just who he is, he’s a gym rat. He’s an exceptionally high IQ guy. He’s probably down in the weight room now or watching film now or bugging Jack Tyler to meet with him now. He wants to know everything and he’s working his way to doing that. I’ve been impressed with his mental makeup and how he handles things and how he’s picked things up at the mike position. We’ve talked about it and he is learning the backer spot a little bit.”
Depending on how you classify Devon Hunter, the former 757 product will round out the position as the new whip linebacker/nickelback follower the dismissal of Mook Reynolds.
Reggie Floyd leads the group, and he’s the leading returning tackler for Virginia Tech after collecting 72 in 2017. Floyd will make the transition from the new kid on the block last year at strong safety to the veteran in the secondary now as a junior, where he’ll have to take on more of a leadership role.
“If you’re on the field you have to be vocal and talk,” Floyd said. “It’s been just a little more talking to the younger guys so they understand when there’s motions and all this stuff going on, how to move and what you’re assignment is.”
At the free safety spot there’s a competition between redshirt sophomores Divine Deablo and Khalil Ladler, two players who played last year. Deablo played in four games last year and tallied three pass breakups and an interception before his season ended with a foot fracture. Ladler appeared in all 13 games and recorded 12 tackles and one pass breakup. He started the final two games of the season.
“They’re both great athletes,” Floyd said. “Both have a great sense on the field.”
The biggest question remains who the Hokies will rely on to make plays from the cornerback position. Foster noted that sophomore Bryce Watts and junior Jovonn Quillen will take the first team reps at the beginning of camp.
“Having competition is healthy,” Foster said. “It’s going to push guys to be the best that they can be. That’s what we’re going to find out. Who can live up to the expectations and perform well on a consistent basis.
“Where we start out, I really like Bryce Watts. He had a great spring, so I feel really good about him. Jovonn Quillen was arguably our most improved player through the spring.”
Behind Watts and Quillen are a corps of young talent. Freshman DJ Crossen is moving from safety to corner, and freshman Armani Chatman will also play cornerback despite being listed as a wide receiver on Virginia Tech’s online roster.
“I really like Jermaine Waller, who came in early, I think he has a chance to be really, really special,” Foster said. “Getting Caleb Farley back and him being healthy and watching him run makes me really excited about him. Obviously, he worked with us in the spring a year ago and I just like his skillset, length and capabilities. “I have been really impressed with this freshman class, especially in the back end. You got D.J. Crossen and we are going to move him to corner from the safety spot. Nadir Thompson, I’m extremely impressed with and excited about him. And then Armani Chatman, another 757 kid. And then Chamarri Conner working at our rover spot.”