2021 Virginia Tech Defensive Line Preview

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TyJuan Garbutt, Virginia Tech
TyJuan Garbutt is “back.” (Jon Fleming)

Last season, Virginia Tech’s defensive line struggled at times for a variety of reasons. The players had little time in Justin Hamilton’s defensive system, and there wasn’t a plethora of depth or experience.

Here’s a breakdown of Virginia Tech’s defensive line starts in 2020:

Jarrod Hewitt: 10
Norell Pollard: 10
Justus Reed: 10
Amare Barno: 6
Emmanuel Belmar: 5
DaShawn Crawford: 1
Jaylen Griffin: 1
Mario Kendricks: 1

Belmar medically retired two weeks ago, Crawford transferred to Southern Miss, and Hewitt and Reed took their talents to the NFL. That means Tech returns 18 total starts from 2020.

The good news is TyJuan Garbutt is back to his old self. Justin Fuente, the coaching staff and players have raved about Garbutt throughout fall camp, which is great news. The Fredericksburg, Va. native started 11 games in 2019 before stepping away for the 2020 season to be with his father, who was dealing with health issues.

The Hokies also picked up a transfer in Clemson’s Jordan Williams. The Virginia Beach native played in 38 games for the Tigers with three starts and should be a key interior weapon for Tech.

Add the 2018 and 2019 starts, and Williams, and Tech’s defensive line has 42 career starts:

TyJuan Garbutt: 16
Norell Pollard: 12
Amare Barno: 6
Jordan Williams: 3
Eli Adams: 2
Mario Kendricks: 1
Jaylen Griffin: 1

With defensive ends Robert Wooten and Alec Bryant transferring in July, and Justin Beadles leaving back in the spring, the defensive line room might have the least depth on the team. How will the Hokies manage that aspect?

The Core

Garbutt, Williams, Kendricks, Pollard and Barno make up the core of the defensive line. They own 39 of Tech’s 42 career starts, and four of them will likely make up the Hokies’ starting front this season. In open practice back in early August, Garbutt, Williams, Kendricks and Barno were practicing with the ones. Pollard is included in that group because he has the second-most starts, can slide right in, and is competing for that starting spot.

TyJuan Garbutt (6-1, 252, r-Jr., Fredericksburg, Va.): Garbutt has the most experience on the defensive line and has been with the Hokies since 2017. He has 62 career tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks. Garbutt had eight quarterback hurries in 2019, too. He’ll play opposite of Barno, which should provide some advantages that we’ll hit on in a few paragraphs.

“TyJuan Garbutt seems to be back to his old self,” Fuente said on Aug. 12. “He’s back. He’s joking and laughing and having a good time. It’s nice to have him back, and we do have some experience there [at defensive end].”

Jordan Williams, Virginia Tech
Jordan Williams brings a championship mentality to this defensive line. (Jon Fleming)

Jordan Williams (6-5, 285, r-Jr., Virginia Beach, Va.): Williams totaled 55 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks, two pass breakups and a forced fumble in three seasons at Clemson. He won a National Championship with the Tigers in 2018 and played in another one in 2019. The coaches and players have referenced his championship background and pedigree in the past few weeks. He provides a veteran presence at defensive tackle.

Mario Kendricks (6-0, 290, So., Kissimmee, Fla.): Kendricks has played in all 24 games for the Hokies since 2019, totaling 26 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He only has one start but is a member of Tech’s eleven-man leadership council, which speaks to his maturity and leadership.

Norell Pollard (6-0, 281, So., Apopka, Fla.): Another member of Tech’s leadership council, Pollard has the second-most starts on Tech’s defensive line. He tallied 52 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries in two seasons. He also has one forced fumble and one recovery. Chris Coleman highlighted Pollard’s jump in weight from 265 to 281 back on Aug. 5 and how that can help him this season.

Amare Barno, Virginia Tech
Amare Barno will be the impact player on Tech’s defensive line this season. (Jon Fleming)

Amare Barno (6-6, 245, r-Jr., Blythewood, S.C.): A Preseason All-ACC nominee in 2021, Barno is a unique specimen thanks to his length. He started six games at right end in 2020 once Belmar had to sit out due to his concussion. He was third in the FBS in tackles for loss with 16.0 last season and led the team with 6.5 sacks. Barno also had 43 tackles, two forced fumbles, one recovery, two pass breakups and three quarterback hurries.

What to Expect: Barno’s breakout season in 2020 means that offenses will have to account for him more. Chris’s article on strength and conditioning focused on Barno, too, who jumped from 235 to 245 in the offseason and still had the fifth-best speed on the team.

Teams focusing more on Barno should open up some opportunities for the other three guys on the line. A rejuvenated TyJuan Garbutt is a huge boost for this group because of the experience and knowledge he provides. On the interior, Tech has three solid tackles in Williams, Pollard and Kendricks. There isn’t a glaring weak spot in that front four, which means offenses are going to have to get creative in exploiting Tech’s d-line.

What about the backups, though?

The Next Guys Up

During open practice, Eli Adams, Jaylen Griffin, Josh Fuga and Pollard were running with the second unit. Adams has two career starts while Griffin has one, and the two have 37 combined appearances in maroon and orange. Fuga redshirted in 2019 and played in 11 games in 2020.

Eli Adams (5-11, 235, r-So., Rock Hill, S.C.): Adams was the right size for Bud Foster’s old defensive system, but is a bit undersized in Justin Hamilton’s scheme. He only played in five games last year, tallying six tackles, 0.5 sacks and a quarterback hurry.

Jaylen Griffin (6-1, 264, r-Jr., Rome, Ga.): Griffin started one game and appeared in nine last season, recording ten tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. His start came against Wake Forest, a game Justus Reed missed. He’s one of the veterans in the room, having been in Blacksburg since 2017.

Josh Fuga, Virginia Tech
Josh Fuga dropped 15 pounds in the offseason. (Jon Fleming)

Josh Fuga (6-2, 308, r-Fr., Woodbridge, Va.): Fuga saw time late in games last year, making 11 appearances. He had ten tackles and 1.0 sack. He dropped weight from 323 to 308 in the offseason, which should help his production. He’ll battle with Pollard for a defensive tackle spot.

Outside of the three listed above, the list is thin. Desmond Mamudi, Cole Nelson and Mattheus Carroll are freshmen, while Wilfried Pene made the move from tight end to defensive line this summer. The only other player is Maxx Philpott, a 6-0, 306-pound redshirt freshman from Salem, Va. who played in nine games last season. He was a former walk-on who earned a scholarship.

Simply put, outside of the top five or six players, depth is thin on the defensive line. Fuga and Griffin should get in the rotation, but Adams is so undersized that he might not have much of a role. Four freshmen and a former walk-on to fill out the rotation isn’t promising. However, if Tech can stay healthy, it shouldn’t be too worrisome. If the Hokies start dropping like flies, the depth concerns will be more noticeable.

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