In his 23 years at Virginia Tech, defensive line coach Charley Wiles has, year in and year out, commanded a solid defensive front that’s been a hallmark of the Hokies’ “Lunch Pail Defense.”
The second longest-tenured coach on Virginia Tech’s staff behind Bud Foster, Wiles returns a veteran starting unit on the defensive line, but questions still remain regarding the depth that the Hokies will have in the trenches.
Trevon Hill, Houshun Gaines, Vinny Mihota, and the bell cow Ricky Walker are expected to fill the front four. Those four make up Virginia Tech’s most experienced unit on defense, returning 58 career starts among them. Defensive end Houshun Gaines only accounts for two of those starts, but much more will be expected of him in 2018.
“He’s having a dynamic camp,” Wiles said of Gaines. “He brings a lot of energy to our practices and really the meeting room. House loves football. He really does. He’s got a great football IQ. He watches film with a purpose. He’s really good for the younger guys with his approach in the meetings. He’s one of our leaders.”
“The upcoming season I’m projected to be a starter, so my role has expanded a little more,” Gaines said. “I’m just excited. I’m challenging myself to take on a harder work load and challenge the rest of our team as well to take another step and take our game to a new level.”
Now entering his redshirt junior season, Gaines has had his fair share of ups and downs in his Virginia Tech. Wiles has been there every step of the way, first as Gaines’ primary recruiter, and has guided him through those peaks and valleys on and off the field.
“Me and coach Wiles have a very close-knit relationship since the beginning,” Gaines said. “I love the guy. He’s always been a good person to talk to. Aside from football he’s a great man. He’s always happy and he’s always been real with me. You can’t do anything but respect someone like that.”
It’s now Gaines’ time to perform on a consistent basis. After his 7.0 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks in 2017, Gaines is ready to take another step. Lucky for him, he’s had some standout players to watch over the years.
“Just challenging myself to watch the guys who were before me,” Gaines said. “Take after those guys. You have guys like Woody Baron and Luther Maddy and Ken Ekanem. Guys like those who just come to work every day and be professional about it. You really just go out and take after that.”
On the other end of the defensive line, Trevon Hill returns to claim his spot as Virginia Tech’s leading pass rusher. A year ago, Hill was tied for the lead with 5.5 sacks. His 46 tackles are the second most returning to the defense in 2018.
“T Hill, he’s got experience,” Wiles said. “He’s an instinctive ball player. You can’t coach a guy to have instincts and he does. He’s got some good, twitchy movement. He’s got some plays under his belt. I’m hopeful that we stay healthy and he’s a guy who could turn some plays for us. We need him to.”
Vinny Mihota could be a key x-factor in the front four, transitioning from defensive end to defensive tackle, joining Ricky Walker in the interior.
While recovering from a torn ACL, Mihota had a delicate balancing act of trying to monitor a weight gain for the inside while also rehabbing the knee. Over the offseason, he’s upped his weight to 297 pounds and is slowly but surely working into the role that Virginia Tech envisions this year.
“I was a little concerned going into the last scrimmage, but Vinny moved around good,” Wiles said. “He played 19 plays in the scrimmage and I was pleasantly surprised how well Vinny moved around. A lot of that has to be mental too, that you trust putting that foot into the ground and playing ball again. Now it’s really getting into good football shape.”
During the same scrimmage on Tuesday, Wiles was also impressed by several of the younger guys. He’s hoping that players like defensive ends TyJuan Garbutt, Nathan Proctor, Zion De and Eli Adams along with tackle Jarrod Hewitt can provide some key depth.
“I was real pleased with the way we played in that scrimmage the other day,” Wiles said. “Our young ends continued to improve and that includes Eli Adams. Those guys, they’ve got a year under their belt. The credit really goes to Ben Hilgart and his staff. They’ve got those kids really looking big and strong. Those younger redshirt ends really came out and played. I think Jarrod Hewitt kind of took the scrimmage over a little bit at times. Look at Jarrod, and you saw that quickness that we really recruited.”
“I think we have a great group of young guys,” Gaines said. “A lot of people try to throw that ‘young’ word around. I feel we’re just inexperienced. Where we lack in experience we make up for in hunger and just wanting to be better.”
Joining Hewitt on the two-deep of defensive tackles for the Hokies will likely be redshirt junior Xavier Burke. Burke came to Blacksburg as a tight end and eventually switched sides of the ball. Originally, Burke started off at the defensive end spot, but moved to defensive tackle to address depth concerns.
“Defensive tackle is a little more physical obviously than defensive end,” Burke said. “I’m in a better state physically and mentally, as well as knowing what to do on the field.”
With a defense that still has several questions heading into the opener on September 3, the defensive line appears to be a strong suit that could end up being a firm foundation for the LPD.
“We’re going to get after the quarterback,” Gaines said. “That’s what coach Foster is known for. We want to continue that tradition and just get after the quarterback.”