Spring Practice Preview: Linebackers

by bmann4 on March 17, 2013 · 3 comments

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Over the last several weeks, we’ve discussed how the Virginia Tech Hokies expect to have a dominant defense in 2013. Nine starters return from a unit that finished No. 18 overall in total defense in 2012.

Both starters the Hokies will be replacing, however, are at linebacker. Fortunately for the Hokies, senior Jack Tyler returns as the middle linebacker. Tyler, a former walk-on entering his third season as a starter, was a second-team All-ACC selection in 2012. ACC coaches also select an all-conference team and they named Tyler to the first team, demonstrating the respect he holds around the league.

Tyler has gotten better in each of his previous four years on campus, and in 2012, led the Hokies in tackles. He isn’t just a tackling machine, however, as he recorded 13 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks. Tyler is underrated in coverage, too.

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster has always taken pride in having players like Tyler play prominent roles on his defense over the years. Cody Grimm is the most recent example of a player that was once a walk-on who finished his career as an all-conference player.

While the Hokies are in good shape at middle linebacker, there are questions at both outside positions. Three-year starter Bruce Taylor was a solid player for the Hokies and his presence will be missed. However, senior Tariq Edwards returns from an injury-plagued 2012 season as the starter at the backer position.

As a sophomore in 2011, Edwards had a terrific season. He recorded 71 tackles, 11.5 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks. Edwards was also good in coverage finishing with two interceptions and two pass-breakups. As good as Taylor and Tyler were, the Hokies clearly missed Edwards’ play-making ability.

At 6-foot-2, 237 lbs., Edwards possesses great size to go along with excellent speed. The question concerning Edwards, though, is how much a leg injury will affect his speed. He fought through the injury last season, but only played in seven games and had just four tackles on the season.

If Edwards is fully healthy, and we’ll know for sure next week when spring practice begins, the Hokies will be in good shape.

Fortunately for the Hokies, redshirt freshman Deon Clarke is Edwards’ backup at ‘backer. Clarke, at 6-foot-2, 215 lbs., has good size to go along with the speed of a defensive back. He actually played in three games last season before the Hokies shut him down for the year so they could redshirt him.

Clarke has the makings of a future star, but if Edwards is healthy, he will have to wait his turn in 2013. His athletic ability will serve him well on each of the special teams’ units. Clarke will undoubtedly be the starter at backer in 2014.

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Sophomore Ronny Vandyke is expected to be the starter at the whip linebacker position. Vandyke played in all 13 games in 2012, starting two. He is one of the best athletes on the team, but seemed to struggle with some of his assignments the more he was on the field.

Vandyke showed tremendous potential on defense. He was a former all-state defensive back in high school and some of his early struggles were likely due to him moving to linebacker. Vandyke was listed at 6-foot-2, 215 lbs. this offseason. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he were bigger at the beginning of spring practice.

Being a former defensive back, Vandyke is obviously strong in coverage. The Hokies expect Vandyke to improve in the running game. He is a physical player and Foster hopes he is better at diagnosing the play at the line of scrimmage. Playing alongside Tyler and Edwards will be extremely beneficial for Vandyke.

Vandyke is one of the more exciting young players in the program. The whip linebacker is an important position in Foster’s defense and Vandyke will be put in a position to make many plays.

Vandyke’s brother, Devin, a redshirt freshman, is expected to see some time at Virginia Tech's MIKE position this spring. Both players have similar size, Devin is 6-foot-1, 212 lbs., and are explosive athletes.

Look for re-instated freshman Dahman McKinnon to see most of the 2nd string reps at WHIP.  He doesn't have quite the same skill set as Ronny Vandyke but he's a smart player that enrolled in May last season to get a jump start on his development.  Other than his brief suspension for a hit and run misunderstanding, the reviews for McKinnon has been positive. 

Tyler’s top backup is junior Chase Williams. Williams is entering his fourth year in the program and is the son of longtime NFL coach Gregg Williams. At 6-foot-2, 236 lbs., Williams has good size and is an above-average athlete. If Tyler were to go down, the Hokies would be in good shape with Williams. He could actually play the ‘backer position if needed and even if he is not a starter, expect him to play on defense quite a bit in 2013.

Despite having to replace two starters the position, the Hokies actually feel really good about this position. Having a player like Tyler will ease the concern of any coach. The key to this group is the health of Edwards.

The Hokies are excited about some of the youth at the position and this spring will be an excellent opportunity for each player to stand out above the rest.  

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