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The Hokies have been getting major production from the defensive line, but position coach Charley Wiles is trying to keep his squad focused.
The Roanoke Times | File August
Alabama's T.J. Yeldon spins away from Tech defenders Tariq Edwards, center, and James Gayle (99).
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Western Carolina quarterback Jonah Duggan center, is tackled by Virginia Tech defenders Matt Roth (91) Deon Clarke (40) and Alston Smith (94).
Daniel Shirey | USA TODAY Sports
Virginia Tech's Nigel Williams (95) celebrates after sacking Alabama QB AJ McCarron (10) in the Georgia Dome.
Thursday, September 19, 2013
BLACKSBURG — James Gayle thought he had a pretty good game against Western Carolina.
The Virginia Tech defensive end had four tackles, one of which was for a loss, and four quarterback hurries. Not bad considering how quickly the Catamounts got rid of the ball.
So the senior was a little taken aback when defensive line coach Charley Wiles came up to him prior to East Carolina last week and said, “It’s time you started to make some plays.”
Gayle responded with his best game in a while, shrugging off a shoulder injury early to finish with 2.5 tackles for a loss, including two sacks, one of which resulted in a safety that sealed the Hokies’ win.
Wiles’ message this week?
“You can’t just do it one week and think you’re great,” Gayle said.
The Hokies have been strong up front so far this year, getting major production from their defensive line, but Wiles hopes to keep the group motivated, knowing it’s only three weeks into the season and ACC play hasn’t started.
“Everybody’s blowing a lot of smoke up our butt right now. You know what I mean?” Wiles said.
It’s with good reason, though. The Hokies were a physical mismatch for No. 1 Alabama on the line in the opener, holding the Tide to 96 rushing yards and sacking AJ McCarron four times.
Last week at East Carolina, the Hokies had seven sacks, their most since last year’s Duke game. You have to go back to the Duke game in 2006 to find a contest in which Tech had more.
Although early, Virginia Tech is setting a good pace. Its 12 sacks are tied for second-most nationally through three games, with 8½ of those coming from defensive linemen.
Only twice in the last 15 years have the Hokies averaged more than three sacks a game for a season — 3.36 led by Chris Ellis and Orion Martin in 2007 and an incredible 5.27 with Corey Moore and John Engelberger during the BCS title game run in 1999.
It has happened this year for a number of reasons. First, the pass coverage has been strong, forcing opposing quarterbacks to hold the ball. East Carolina, normally a quick release offense, found plenty of those short routes covered, which gave the line time to converge.
Second, the Hokies’ depth, particularly at defensive end, is really showing up. Tech goes eight deep on its defensive line, with so many contributors that coaches decided Corey Marshall, who recently returned from a three-week personal leave and was once thought critical to the depth at tackle, will redshirt this year.
“It’s like we have eight starters,” senior end J.R. Collins said. “When our D-line is out there, no matter if it’s the starters or the backups, you have a lot of guys that are hungry that want to get after the quarterback.”
That’s especially true at end, where the Hokies have Gayle, Collins and Dadi Nicolas. Gayle is a two-time second-team All-ACC pick who is aiming for a double digit sack year. Collins rededicated himself after a sloppy junior season in which he was out of shape and unmotivated, looking lean and fast this year.
Nicolas might be the wild card. The rangy 6-foot-3, 224-pound sophomore seems to make plays every time he’s in the game, spelling Gayle and Collins and keeping all three fresh. He’d start at a lot of ACC schools.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Wiles said of finding reps for all three, plus senior Tyrel Wilson, who is coming back from a knee injury.
Add interior guys Derrick Hopkins, who Wiles said is playing as well as any tackle Tech has had, and Luther Maddy, and it’s a strong group, with freshmen backups Woody Baron and Nigel Williams providing more help than expected so far.
Wiles knows success is fleeting, however. Last year’s defense was up and down. That included the line, which really only hit its stride from the Duke game in the middle of October and on. After registering just eight sacks the first six games, Tech had 27 in the final seven contests, a 3.86 average.
Wiles thinks the experience of this year’s group, with four seniors in the top eight on the line, will help the Hokies avoid any lulls.
“I’ve got to watch myself. I mean, it’s human nature. We’re playing good,” Wiles said. “You start feeling good about yourself and all of a sudden you get whacked.”
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