BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles has a challenging job ahead.
Wiles has six newcomers at defensive tackle (one position change, two junior college signees and three freshman) for 2019. It wouldn’t be quite so difficult if he could bring the group along slowly, but most of those defenders will see the field this fall thanks to Tech’s low numbers at tackle.
The longtime assistant is breathing a little easier than he was six months ago thanks to the way Tech’s junior college transfers Dashawn Crawford and Jaden Cunningham have performed this fall.
The advantage Crawford got from enrolling early went beyond the lessons he learned on the field.
Crawford jumped right into Tech’s weight room from Jones County Junior College (Mississippi) at the end of December and immediately received a nutrition plan tailored to his individual needs, which was adding weight to his 6-foot-0 frame.
“You never see him around here without something to eat in his hand,” Wiles said “He’s got a smoothie, he’s got a granola bar, and then all the meals that the kids are getting.”
Wiles was thrilled when Crawford weighed in at 290 pounds (up 20 pounds from when he signed) before fall camp, and did it without sacrificing any of the athleticism he showed in the spring.
“He’s still got his quickness and has got a little bit more pop at the point of attack,” Wiles said.
The only question Wiles has left for Crawford is how big of a role he will play in the fall. He’s expected to start alongside Jarrod Hewitt, but Wiles doesn’t want to run his starting tackles into the ground.
“It’s hard to play 55-60 plays inside,” Wiles said. “It really is. It’s very physical and you can wear down a little bit, man. You’re always chasing the ball and so you can get a little tired. I think Dashawn’s somewhere in that 25-play range and so I think he can be real productive 25-30 plays a game.”
Cunningham held his own during camp against the big bodies lining up across from him.
That’s exactly what the Hokies wanted when they signed the 6-foot-2, 306-pounder out of Hutchinson Community College (Kansas). Cunningham didn’t have a flashy resume — he was first-team all-conference last season with 25 tackles (five for a loss) with 1.5 sacks — but he had the physical tools the Hokies needed up front after graduating Ricky Walker and Vinny Mihota.
“He’s been a really pleasant surprise to be honest with you,” Wiles said. “He’s a hard spot. He doesn’t get pushed around in there and he holds the point well and can run a little bit.”
But Cunningham is playing catch-up in the weight room as one of the final 2019 signees to arrive on campus in the summer.
“Imagine him in a year,” Wiles said. “Just to get in great shape and to be in our program for a winter and a spring. He’s going to benefit huge from that.”
That’s not to say Cunningham won’t have an important role in the rotation this fall. The tackle is working hard to earn a spot on the two-deep against a hungry group of freshmen defensive tackles (Norell Pollard, Josh Fuga and Mario Kendricks).
“There’s some competition out there and that’s the best thing, knowing that you’re in direct competition and it’s a production-based business, man,” Wiles said. “You’ve got to play at a certain level and you’ve got to make plays and be productive or somebody’s going to get your spot.”