In Search of Defensive Tackles
by Neal Williams
TSL Extra, Issue #12

Bud Foster, Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator, has been called a genius in his field by a variety of people. Tech’s skilled (and fast) defense just might be the best in the country this season.

Bud Foster is a head coach in waiting. His reputation is that solid. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out one thing.

"We’re going to be young at tackle" in 2002, Foster said. "I like the kids there, I like the way they’re working, the way they’re understanding the level of play and the expectations of college football. (But) we will have some growing pains there."

Ain’t no doubt about that.

Coaches do plenty during the season. Their day starts early and ends late. Sometimes the days run together. While they are preparing for the coming game, they’re also preparing for the future. It goes beyond recruiting. It includes assessing the talent on hand and figuring out who might fit where when openings become available.

If coaches look to the future while taking care of the present, fans ought to be allowed to do the same. Surprise. They do! And a fan doesn’t have to be exceptionally astute to figure out Tech’s situation at defensive tackle.

Starters David Pugh and Chad Beasley are excellent. They’re perhaps the best tackle pair in the country. Both could end up playing in the National Football League.

They’re seniors.

Backups Dan Wilkinson and Derrius Monroe keep the level high when they’re on the field. Monroe has improved rapidly since being reinstated to the team. His conditioning is improving, and his speed is amazing. Wilkinson makes the most of every play he’s in and his sacks-to-plays ratio is as good as anyone’s.

They’re seniors.

Think about that. How many positions see the entire two-deep wiped out? Tight end, maybe, though Browning Wynn and Bob Slowikowski share the position at Tech. Keith Willis and Jared Mazzetta will return. Three of the four inside linebackers are seniors.

Nowhere is the destruction as deep as it will be at tackle.

Furthermore, No. 5 tackle Channing Reed – who was in the two-deep before injuring a foot – is a senior.

Yow. Talk about a house that will empty out fast.

Before looking at the future of that position, let’s take a look at the position itself.

There is very little traditional about Foster’s defense. It’s billed as a 4-3 and technically that’s correct. There are four down linemen – two tackles and two ends. There are three linebackers – two "inside" and one "outside." There are four backs – two corners, one free safety and one "rover," which would translate to strong safety in a regular 4-3.

That’s all pretty traditional looking. It doesn’t work out that way.

Foster places more of a premium on speed than he does on size. We’ll-get-there-before-you-do. He’ll gladly take a small, strong, fast guy over a big lug. A big lug who is strong and fast is a bonus.

The ends, in particular, are smaller than most and faster than most.

The outside linebacker is a lineman sometimes, a traditional linebacker at other times and a defensive back as well. The rover is literally that. Kevin McCadam, this year’s rover, is seemingly everywhere.

The tackles are about as close to traditional as you can get. They’re the anchors, "the bell cows" as Foster calls Pugh and Beasley. One tackle position is called nose tackle, but that doesn’t mean he lines up directly over the center. "It’s basically just a name for the spot," Foster said. "They’re tackles."

Beasley is 6-5, 295 pounds, Pugh 6-3, 276. Monroe, the fastest of the bunch, is 6-4, 275. Wilkinson is the shortest at 6-1, but he weighs 261 and doesn’t lack for speed.

Good tackles make it virtually impossible to double up on one of the ends. Rare is the team that doesn’t have to use a back to try and block one of Tech’s linemen.

"They solidify the inside," Foster said of his tackles. "With the speed we have on the field, if people can’t run inside on us we have gained an advantage. The way these guys are playing, it’s hard for people to run inside.

"Just like in baseball, you have to be good up the middle."

Next year, the names will change.

The obvious starting place for replacements are Kevin Lewis and Mark Costen.

The 6-1, 280-pound Lewis, from Varina High in Richmond, was considered by the coaching staff to be Tech’s third best defensive tackle in preseason. He was redshirted this season, but not because he’s not good enough to play.

He wasn’t so far ahead of Wilkinson and Reed (Monroe joined the team late in preseason and wasn’t activated until the second game) that the coaches didn’t feel comfortable with those two in there. It made sense for Lewis to sit and wait and have three full years remaining.

"We really think he can be one of the ‘bell cow’ types," Foster said.

Costen is from Virginia Beach, and he was playing more early this season before Monroe got into game shape. The 6-3 Costen is up to 270 pounds. In his early days at Tech, the walk-on struggled to keep on weight. He attacked the weight room a little harder in the most recent offseason and was able to put on 20 pounds (and keep it on).

"That is part of the reason why we redshirted Lewis. We knew we had a lot of depth this year," Foster said. "We’ll be able to use him for another three years."

Everyone at Tech is hoping they’ll get a little confused for those three years. Kevin Lewis’ brother Jonathan is a standout lineman at Varina who may end up at Tech and provide the Hokies with a Lewis-Lewis tackle tandem.

But having another Lewis is not a guarantee – yet.

Foster said he’s happy with the candidates on hand among this year’s freshman class. No defensive linemen are among the group of true freshmen who are playing. Among the candidates:

Kevin Hilton -- From Silver Spring, Md., Hilton recently underwent foot surgery but is expected to fully recover and be able to compete in the spring. He’s listed at 6-2, 255 pounds.

Tim Sandidge -- From Pugh’s hometown (Madison Heights) and high school (Amherst County), he’s a young one in terms of experience. He only played his final two years of high school and still managed to become second-team all-state. He’s 6-2, 275.

Jason Murphy -- From Baltimore, he was the Baltimore Sun’s defensive player of the year last season. He had 17 sacks as a senior and 60 during his career. He’s 6-3, 255.

Andrew Fleck -- He’ll enroll in January. Fleck is from Edmond, Okla., and is listed as a defensive lineman and tight end. He’s 6-4, 240 pounds.

Brandon Frye -- Another January enrollee. Frye is from Myrtle Beach, S.C., and was a tight end until moving to the defensive side as a senior. He’s 6-4, 255 pounds.

Will Montgomery -- The walk-on surprise of the preseason, Montgomery was moved to offense but is redshirting this season. Foster wouldn’t mind seeing him moved back to the defensive side, and that’s a possibility. He’s a 6-2, 275-pounder from Clifton in Northern Virginia.

"We’d like to get him back if we could," Foster said.

Is there a Pugh in the bunch? Is there a Beasley? The dropoff may seem considerable at first. Consider that neither became a full-time starter until his fourth year in the program. They were redshirts for a year, backups for two and then starters for two.

"No question we’ll be a little more inexperienced there," Foster said. "But I like the kids we’ve got."

Other Positions

It isn't just the defensive tackle position that will look vastly different next year. Other positions will have different looks as well.

Jarrett Ferguson has been entrenched so long at fullback that it will definitely be odd to see someone else starting. Sophomore Doug Easlick has supplanted senior Wayne Briggs as the backup and will presumably move in for Ferguson.

With Wynn and Slowikowski gone at tight end, look for sophomore Willis and redshirt freshman Mazzetta to have an arrangement similar to the Wynn-Slowikowski time share.

The receiving corps loses Andre Davis and Emmett Johnson. Terrell Parham, Richard Johnson and Shawn Witten will have some work to do to cover those slots. If Fred Lee enrolls in January (he’s at prep school now), he could very quickly join the mix.

Inside linebacker? Vegas Robinson, a sophomore, is the only non-senior in the two-deep. Redshirt freshman Mikal Baaqee could become a factor. How about redshirt freshman Josh Spence? He’s listed as a fullback, but has moved back and forth and could find playing time quicker on the defensive side if he gets down to some serious work at linebacker.

Chris Buie, a sophomore, is another possibility. True freshman James Anderson went to high school with Chris Clifton and DeAngelo Hall and is well regarded. Jordan Trott, from Torrance, Calif., is listed as a linebacker and defensive lineman. There’s also Blake Warren of Centreville, son of former Washington Redskins’ tight end Don Warren.

Hokie fans, no doubt, would love to think of Ahmad Brooks in that position. He’s a 6-3, 230 pounder with 4.4 speed in the 40.

But, first, Brooks has to sign with the Hokies. He’s finishing up his senior season at C.D. Hylton High in Woodbridge.



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