Spring Practice Preview: Defensive Line

by bmann4 on March 11, 2013 · 11 comments

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The Hokies entered the 2012 season with high expectations, much of that was because of a defense that many expected to be dominant. The first half of the season, the Hokies were anything but dominant. However, in the second half of the season, the defense began to improve and a large part of that was because of a talented defensive line.

The Hokies finished 2012 with a total of 35 sacks. The majority came in the second-half of the season once the team got healthier on the defensive line. 23 of the team’s 35 sacks were from defensive linemen and senior defensive end James Gayle led this group with five.

After struggling to defend the run vs. North Carolina, the Hokies finished the season No. 29 overall in run defense. While that is a respectable number, defensive coordinator Bud Foster always expects his unit to be in the top 10 in run defense year in and year out.

Fortunately for the Hokies, they lose only one lineman from last year’s group: defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins, a part-time starter.

As we continue our look at the each positional group before spring practice, this week we focus on the defensive line.

Defensive End:

After the Hokies’ bowl win over Rutgers, Gayle flirted with the idea of bypassing his senior season in order to apply for the NFL draft. However, after getting information from the NFL Draft Advisory Committee that he would likely not be a first-round pick, Gayle decided to return to school and made Foster a very happy man.

Gayle, at 6-foot-4, 270 lbs., has the size and athletic ability to be one of the best players in all of college football. He plays angry on the field, which coaches can truly appreciate. He will be entering his third year as a starter and the Hokies will expect more than five sacks from Gayle this year. Don’t assume because he had only five sacks in 2012 that he wasn’t disruptive, because he was. The Hokies just want him to get to the passer more frequently.

J.R. Collins entered 2012 as the starter opposite of Gayle but he later yielded playing time to other, more productive players. As a sophomore in 2011, Collins finished with 9.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. In 2012, had six tackles for loss and just 1.5 sacks.

Corey Marshall has played both defensive end and defensive tackle since arriving on campus in 2011. He seemed to find a home at end last season as he started four games. He is the defensive line’s most versatile player and is a solid pass-rusher. He will be in the mix to start at the defensive end spot on the other side of Gayle.

Tyrel Wilson has been a part-time player the last two years but his snaps significantly increased in 2012. He started three games and had 4.5 sacks. He is small (6-foot-1, 228), but is relentless and extremely athletic. He is best suited for the role of third-down pass-rusher as he could make a big impact. He is not big enough to play every down against big offensive tackles.

Dadi Nicolas is a very intriguing player for the Hokies. A redshirt sophomore, Nicolas played in 10 games in 2012 and showed coaches his potential as a pass-rusher. Like Wilson, Nicolas is a bit on the smaller size (6-foot-2, 230), but he is a better all-around player than Wilson. He will play a lot in 2013 and the spring is important for him. He has an opportunity to enter the mix as a starter.

Sophomore Matt Roth is another player to keep an eye on. At 6-foot-4, 245 lbs., Roth has good size. He is an underrated athlete that will always play to the whistle. Roth may not be in the mix to start, but he impressed coaches in 2012 and will be in the defensive end rotation.

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Redshirt freshman Ken Ekanem, one of the Hokies’ top signees in 2012, will have a big opportunity this spring. At 6-foot-3, 250 lbs., Ekanem has the size and athletic ability to be a difference-maker early in his career. He is no doubt a future starter and look for him to impress Foster and defensive line coach Charley Wiles in spring practice.

Defensive Tackle:

There is certainly less depth at defensive tackle than there is at end, which should make spring practice even more competitive. The starters are set with junior Luther Maddy and senior Derrick Hopkins. The Hokies are in very good shape here.

Hopkins has started all 27 games the past two seasons and was honorable mention All-ACC in 2012. He is very good against the run and has the ability to rush the passer. Standing just 6-foot tall and weighing 306 lbs., Hopkins plays with terrific leverage and is quicker than most offensive linemen he plays against. Expect him to have a big senior year.

Maddy has been somewhat of a revelation to the coaches since arriving on campus two years ago. As a freshman, the Hokies planned to redshirt Maddy, but he was so impressive they decided to dress him. He played in all 13 games as a true freshman, starting seven.

Maddy entered 2012 with even higher expectations and didn’t disappoint. He played in all 13 games, starting nine. He finished the season with 6.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He is an extremely disruptive player on the interior and looks to be one of the best pass-rushing defensive tackles the Hokies have ever had. Maddy is 6-foot-1, 289 lbs., and is much stronger than people realize. He plays with excellent technique and may be the most indispensible player on the defensive line.

An ankle injury slowed Maddy in 2012, but he didn’t miss any games. When he recovered fully from the injury, the Hokies’ defensive line play improved as a whole.

Kris Harley was in the same recruiting class as Maddy and was the more-heralded player coming out of high school. A former 4-star recruit out of Indianapolis, Harley didn’t adjust to the college game as quickly as Maddy and redshirted as a freshman in 2011.

Harley played in 10 games in 2012 and with the departure of Antoine Hopkins; he will be expected to be the team’s third defensive tackle. He is built similarly to Maddy (6-foot-1, 285), but not as athletic. He is an extremely strong player and it will be interesting to see his progression in spring practice.

While the top three at defensive tackle are set, who will step up in spring practice challenge for a spot on the two-deep? A pair of redshirt freshmen, Nigel Williams (6-foot-3, 270) and Alston Smith (6-foot-2, 284), are next in line and have an outstanding opportunity in front of them.

The defensive line may be the most fun position group to keep an eye on this spring with all the competition at defensive end. Depth will not be an issue for the Hokies at defensive end in 2013, but they could be in trouble if Hopkins or Maddy gets injured at defensive tackle.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

JustinC March 11, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Our starting 4 is settled, for the most part. Collins and Marshall will continue to battle at end but I could see that being a joint-partnership this season just because they each bring a little different flavor to the position. But, I truly believe most fans are going to be talking about Kris Harley and Dadi Nicolas a lot more after this spring. I’m really high on both of those guys.

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bp March 11, 2013 at 10:15 pm

Hey what about the kid from Georgia that we got last year i know he was a big time recruit at the time…i think its jarontay jones.

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JustinC March 12, 2013 at 8:04 am

Jarontay will be in the mix but I honestly haven’t heard much on him. Have to wait and see how he does with the 3′s this spring. We have so much depth at DE right now it’s going to be tough for any of our younger guys to break through. With Gayle/Wilson/Nicolas at Stud and Marshall/Collins/Roth at End, that leaves out Ekanem, Jones, Taylor (who may have moved inside), and Alford. Those are a lot of capable guys who will likely have to wait for Gayle, Wilson, and Collins to move on before some playing time opens up.

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LJ March 11, 2013 at 10:21 pm

A quick comment on James Gayle, I personally thought he had a very poor season compared to his sophomore year as he took many plays off and sometimes the entire game off. I would have loved to listen in on his discussion with Coach Foster about returning next year. I think Bud is doing him a big favor by not telling him to just move on…it would not have hurt my feelings one bit. Gayle will have a hard time maintaining his starting position unless he gets his sh*t together because Ekanam and Nicolas have as much or more talent and are hungry and ready to contribute…

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hokiegrad March 12, 2013 at 5:41 pm

you must be the only person that feels this way… Gayle was clearly our best DE last year.

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LJ March 12, 2013 at 8:07 pm

Hey don’t get me wrong JG was my favorite player on the team as a sophomore and he was hurt for part of the season. He took 2012 off by his standards. Look at the film, check the stats, Bud had him play less plays per game…(mainly because he was not efficient against the run) Maddy & D Hopkins were by far more effective and Maddy was the Defensive MVP. If Gale would have had a good year he would have gone pro. The pro draft rating groups had him as a 5th round pick and one group had him not getting drafted. If he came out in 2011 he would have been a ¾ rounder. Silver lining is he is motivated next year or staying another year is only beneficial because he get a degree…

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Judge Smails March 14, 2013 at 8:12 am

I thought Gayle was a little nicked up last year, hence the drop in PT

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Mark March 12, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Justin, I’m curious to hear your take on Dewayne Alford. It looks like he has pretty good size (similar to JR Collins and he recorded a very good 10 yard time (quick first step). Not bad company up there with JC Coleman, KFuller, and Stanford. Any chance he surprises people this year? Has there been any talk about his progress? He got some mention last fall for sacks and making good plays.

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JustinC March 13, 2013 at 8:45 am

I like Dewayne as a player and as a potential contributor on the defensive line. He grayshirted so he’s an older redshirt freshman. To put it in perspective, he’s in the same athletic class as Trey Edmunds (both are R-Fr) but Dewayne is almost exactly 2 years older than Trey, who is our youngest R-Fr on the team.

I don’t see Alford contributing much this year. There’s just too much depth above him for him to make any headways. However, he could do some good if he beats out some of the other redshirt freshmen he’s contending with on the depth chart. That’s the key for him this spring and fall. Because after this season, Gayle, Wilson, and Collins will all graduate leaving Nicolas and Marshall as the likely starters in 2014. But, the spots behind them will be up for grabs. So, I think that’s what Alford should shoot for this year.

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Vhokie March 12, 2013 at 5:07 pm

@LJ
I disagree with you on Gayle. There is no way he doesn’t start, unless he gets hurt. His numbers weren’t good last year and I agree he had a disappointing year, but as far as raw ability, he is lightning fast and very strong with a perfect frame for defensive end. I think he has a big year. I wonder what he ran in the 40 in winter conditioning?

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mike peterson March 14, 2013 at 11:08 am

I think James Gayle will be the only constant on the defensive this year. Wiles like rotating his defensive line especially in 2 minute situations and 3rd and long. There is too much depth on this dline for dadi nicholas, tyrell wilson, corey marshall, and whatever other end desides to contribute.

The 2 tec and 3 tec are also wide open, hopkins and maddy make a nice fit but nigel williams is on the rise, and alston smith has the genes to come out of no where. Spring ball is going to be interesting.
Also not mentioned, jarontay jones, dewayne alford, jeremy haynes, seth dooley, math roth, justin taylor!

there is a lot of depth. It should be exciting to watch what could be one of the premiere defensive lines in the country this year.

dadi nicholas ran a 4.4 40 and hit a 40 inch vertical…. just figured that needed to be said…

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