Spring Football 2002 Preview: Defense
by Art Stevens
TSL Extra, Issue #17
With five defensive tackles and three linebackers lost from the two-deep, the Hokies face a major defensive rebuilding job, particularly in the middle. That rebuilding job begins this spring, as younger players who have been waiting their chance vie to fill the many openings.
Some help is on the way next fall, as defensive tackles Big Jimmy Williams (from Pasadena City College) and Jonathan Lewis (from Varina High School) are expected to step onto campus and into the two-deep rotation at tackle. Lewis is said to be one of the most physically developed freshman the Hokie coaches have ever seen, and there are whispers saying that Williams may be one of the best interior defensive linemen ever at Tech. Time will tell.
Until then, the guys that Tech has on campus now will stage a knockdown drag out battle to see who gets to carry the mantle of one of the country's best defenses.
Let's take a position-by-position look, starting with the defensive ends. All classes (freshman, sophomore, etc.) in this article refer to what class the player will be in the 2002 season, and all heights, weights, and forty times are taken from the winter testing figures on BeamerBall.com. If forty times are not listed, it's because a player was not tested this winter.
Positions assigned to players are from the 3/20/02 version of the BeamerBall.com depth chart. Please note that this analysis concentrates almost exclusively on scholarship players, unless a walk-on has received playing time or played a major role in the past.
One thing's for sure: the Hokies won't be weak at defensive end. What they'll need this spring is for everyone to stay healthy and for the next Corey Moore to step up. The Stud defensive end position is usually manned by a quick, undersized guy with attitude (think Corey Moore and Cornell Brown), while the End position belongs to a bigger, more prototypical defensive end, more suited for the NFL (think John Engelberger).
The big news here is that Nathaniel Adibi has been switched to Stud, and Lamar Cobb has been moved to End. That flies in the face of the previous paragraph, since Adibi is built more like an Engelberger-type End, and Cobb is built more like a Moore-type Stud, but the move is designed to get Jim Davis and Adibi on the field together at the same time, a move that was experimented with last season. These guys have all been in the program (and on the field) for years, so the major focus this spring will be teaching the new positions to Cobb and Adibi.
Cols Colas has the best shot of being the next C. Moore or C. Brown. He played most of the last two years behind Cobb, but late last season, the coaches moved Colas ahead of Cobb at Stud (and Davis ahead of Adibi at End).
Colas, who played running back in high school, is growing into the Stud position and may be mean enough to play it well. Colas has an "edge" that the other guys on this defensive line might not have; witness his ill-timed push of Miami QB Ken Dorsey in last year's game -- dumb move, but Colas did it because he's intense, a quality that is required to succeed at the Stud position. He's also a phenomenal athlete, as evidenced by his 4.41 forty time and his high power rating in this month's "Inside the Numbers" article.
While Colas is the most likely candidate to emerge as the next great defensive end at Tech, Jim Davis is not far behind. While Colas is a pash rusher, Davis is a complete player, albeit without the fire that Colas has. Lamar Cobb is a superb run-stopper who must work on his pass rushing, and Nathaniel Adibi is the type of player who is inconsistent when it comes to making things happen right at the line of scrimmage, but when he drops back into zone coverage or races after a running QB in the open field, he makes big plays.
For these four guys this spring, it's just a case of staying healthy, building on their strengths, working on their weaknesses, and adjusting to the position change. For Jason Lallis and Brandon Frye, their mission is to keep working, keep learning, and wait their turn.
Predicted Post-Spring Defensive End Depth Chart:
Yeah, I know, I'm not exactly going out on a limb here. That two-deep writes itself.
The bad news is, the Hokies lost everything, including the kitchen sink, at the defensive tackle position. Among the six players who will be playing the DT positions this spring, they had 71 total snaps from scrimmage last year, all of them belonging to walk-on Mark Costen.
The good news is two-fold: Kevin Lewis, who saw playing time in 2000, is done with a redshirt year, and … well, the four freshmen will get a lot of reps this spring.
One interesting nugget about Lewis is that he will turn 22 years old on April 26th, just six days after the spring game. That means that he'll be 24 years old during his redshirt senior season, but it also means that Lewis isn't likely to mature much more physically, and his current weight if 281 is probably about where he'll stay. That's fine, that's big enough for most VT defensive tackles. Plus, brother Jonathan is on the way, and he already weighs 290.
Out of all the freshmen, Jason Murphy bears watching the closest. In high school, he had an incredible 30 sacks as a junior, 17 as a senior, and 60 total in a four-year career. Note that he is bigger than any DT on the roster right now, and despite this, his 40 time is very competitive. If Murphy brings competitiveness and technique with those physical tools, he will be a great player. With all the talk of Jonathan Lewis, Kevin Lewis, and Jimmy Williams, Murphy is a forgotten man, but a potential ace in the hole.
So is Tim Sandidge, who is the fastest of all the defensive tackles in the forty and has been generating some good buzz. Sandidge is a mountain of a player who once weighed 290 but has trimmed down to 275.
Kevin Hilton and will probably lag behind the others for now. Hilton was sidelined by a foot injury last fall, slowing his progress Hilton was a defensive tackle all the way from the time he was recruited.
For Mark Costen, with all these talented scholarship players swirling around him (and more on the way in the fall), it's hard to figure out what will happen to him. He's at #1 on the depth chart right now ahead of Murphy, and this spring will settle the issue of whether or not he stays there.
Predicted Post-Spring Defensive Tackle Depth Chart:
The #1/#2 Tackle position is really a toss-up between Murphy and Costen. If Murphy translates his high school success into college success, Costen may not be able to fight him off. If not, Costen should hold onto the reins at #2 tackle.
INSIDE LINEBACKER (Mike and Backer Positions)
This spring is the time for Vegas Robinson to step up and be the man. He's already got the physical tools (he is the biggest and quickest linebacker the Hokies have, not to mention a strength and conditioning standout), and now is his chance to step into the shoes vacated by Ben Taylor and become a leader. If you're a Hokie fan and the coaches start saying positive things about Vegas this spring, be happy.
Assuming Robinson does step up, he'll be nicely backed up by James Anderson and Blake Warren. If Robinson, Anderson and Warren keep developing, the Hokies have a very nice flow of talent through the Backer position for the next four years. At this point, it's hard to figure out who among the duo of Anderson and Warren will take the upper hand in the coming years, as the coaches have said that both are intelligent and have a good feel for the game.
Mike is much more unsettled, and the coaches have responded by moving Mikal Baaqee from Backer (where there is an embarrassment of riches) to Mike. Baaqee is bigger and faster than walk-on Alex Markogiannakis, who would have seen serious playing time for the Hokies 10-15 years ago. He's a George Del Ricco type with a real instinct for the game. Add three inches and 20 pounds and lop 0.3 seconds off his forty time, and he's a star.
The inability of Chris Buie to knock Markogiannakis down the depth chart last year speaks volumes about how far Buie has to go before he can contribute. He's got the physical tools that Markogiannakis doesn't have, but he remains behind him on the chart. He's a solid special-teamer, but he has never made much noise at the Mike position. It's do or die time for Buie this spring, lest he get passed over by Jordan Trott. Trott has impressed the coaches with his ability to "always be around the football," and he's got similar physical tools to what Jake Houseright had.
Predicted Post-Spring Inside Linebacker Depth Chart:
Robinson is an easy first-team call, and I also think that Baaqee's move to Mike will be permanent, and that he'll be the #1 guy at the end of spring practice. If Buie catches a spark (similar to what Willie Pile did prior to the 2000 season), he could take over the #2 Mike position, but Trott is close on his heels and working hard in the weight room.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (Whip Linebacker Position)
Despite the loss of T.J. Jackson (who struggled in pass defense) to a transfer, the Hokies are in good shape at whip linebacker.
Perhaps the surprise of last year was Mike Daniels, who moved from a backup safety position (where he was caught in a logjam with Willie Pile and Vince Fuller) to whip and performed very well. Daniels was a bit of a liability against the run, particularly in the Gator Bowl against FSU's big tailback, Greg Jones. Daniels has bulked up from 185 to 197 since last fall, bringing him close to Deon Provitt's weight.
Deon Provitt was the starter (over T.J. Jackson) at the beginning of last year, but he suffered a knee injury against Central Florida early in the season and was gone. He did not progress very well in his rehabilitation and will be "limited" in spring football, opening the door for Daniels and walk-on Brandon Manning to excel in front of him.
Manning is not to be taken lightly, as he weighs more than Daniels and Provitt and runs a faster forty time than Daniels (Provitt ran a 4.42 a year ago, when healthy). Manning also excels over Daniels by a very slight margin in vertical jump (34 inches to 33) and the ten-yard shuttle run (1.60 seconds to 1.61).
One concern with Provitt, even if he is able to recover from his knee injury, is weight loss. This time last year, Provitt weighed 209 pounds (when he ran his 4.42). He is now down to 201. By comparison, Lee Suggs, who also suffered a knee injury last season, only lost three pounds, from 204 down to 201.
Predicted Post-Spring Whip Linebacker Depth Chart:
I think this is the way it will play out. If it does, Provitt will have to wait and see if he can get his starting job back from Manning and Daniels in the fall.
BC = Boundary Corner; FC = Field Corner
Ronyell Whitaker and DeAngelo Hall are the bell cows here, with Garnell Wilds and Eric Green providing experienced backups, enabling the Hokies to rest their corners and keep them fresh.
The situation at cornerback during spring football is steady-as-she-goes. This area will not be one of focus for the coaches, other than continuing to develop the players they have. Hall will benefit the most from this spring, because (one more time) spring football is a time for learning, and Hall has yet to go through spring football. He played well as a true freshman last season, and a full spring will advance his game.
D.J. Walton is likely bound for a Rover spot during spring football. He is by far the slowest cornerback on the team, and his build, according to the coaches, is more of a Cory Bird build, perfect for Rover. The coaches will try Walton, who is a great kid but just doesn't have good speed, at the corner position.
Predicted Post-Spring Cornerback Depth Chart:
No real stretch here, although the Walton-to-Rover move is not set in stone.
FREE SAFETY AND ROVER
It was the best of times (Free Safety); it was the worst of times (Rover).
The Hokies are solid at safety, with third-year starter Willie Pile still on board. Pile was a quiet player who blossomed when presented the starting job opportunity prior to the 2000 season, and he hasn't looked back. The coaches rave about backup Vincent Fuller, who took 114 snaps (VT usually doesn't play their backup safeties and Rovers much) in 2001. For Pile and Fuller, they'll spend the spring learning and developing at their position. In case of injury, the multi-talented Billy Hardee (it's hard to believe he'll be a senior next year) can play safety.
At Rover, VT will be hanging a "Rovers wanted -- apply within" sign this spring. Hardee is currently listed #1 on the depth chart, with Michael Crawford behind him and Sam Fatherly bringing up the rear. Former tailback Keith Burnell, the fastest player on the team ever with his 4.21 forty, is listed fourth string simply because he has zero experience at the position.
You get the impression from listening to the coaches talk in the last few years that they want Crawford to step up, because although Hardee is capable and well-respected, Crawford is bigger by nearly 20 pounds and faster by nearly .2 seconds in the forty.
Fatherly, meanwhile, has had a very quiet career so far. He's got good speed, but the coaches almost never talk about him, and his media guide entries say, "Must continue to get stronger." Like others on the Hokie team, Fatherly is in danger of disappearing if he doesn't make a splash soon.
Burnell is a wild card, but given that he's a fifth-year senior, the coaches will probably want to move him up the depth chart and give him some playing time. VT moved him because of the depth at tailback, and Burnell wants a shot at the pros. The coaches will do everything they can to get him on the field, unless he's a total liability, in order to give him that shot.
In addition to those three guys, it's possible that CB D.J. Walton and QB Will Hunt may be given a look at Rover.
Predicted Post-Spring Safety and Rover Depth Chart:
All else being equal (and it may not be), I think that Crawford's size and speed advantage over Hardee, as well as
the fact that he's a rising junior and not a rising senior, will lead to him being given the starting nod over Hardee. I
think that Burnell will get equal playing time as Hardee, but we'll see.
Predicted Post-Spring Defensive Depth Chart
With that run-down completed, here's a comprehensive look at my projected post-spring defensive depth chart. You can see that it includes just five seniors in the projected two-deep. Given everyone that the Hokies have to replace at defensive tackle and linebacker, it's not a surprise to find out that the defense is that young.
We'll see how this projection matches up with reality as the spring wears on.