- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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One of the biggest question marks facing defending ACC champ Virginia Tech this year is the revamped defensive line, which has to replace three starters. I caught up with defensive line coach Charlie Wiles on Wednesday afternoon to see what kind of progress the group has made.
Overall, he said he was pleased with the starting four, which, if they played today, would be: tackles Antoine Hopkins and his brother, Derrick Hopkins, and defensive ends J.R. Collins and James Gayle. The backup positions are where he has the most concerns, and depth remains an issue as the Hokies wrap up spring ball on Saturday and prepare for summer camp.
The Hopkins brothers are two players to watch this fall. Antoine Hopkins is nicknamed “Hop,” and his little brother, Derrick, is “Skip.” They’ve got a younger brother who … you guessed it, is “Jump.”
If Virginia Tech lined up today, Hop and Skip would be in the starting lineup, much like the brother-tandem of Kevin Lewis and Jonathan Lewis once did for the Hokies.
“I love the way our first group has been playing,” Wiles said.
Here’s a closer look at the starters:
DT ANTOINE HOPKINS: Wiles said Hopkins has really elevated his game this spring. Hopkins started 12 games last year and had 45 tackles, including 6.5 for losses.
DT DERRICK HOPKINS: He was in the two-deep as a true freshman last year, but Wiles said he “kind of leveled off a little bit” at the end of the year. Not this spring. “Derrick came out and really has had a superb spring. He’s a playmaker. He has all those things I saw in camp that have been elevated through a year of growth and a year of maturity not only in the weight room, but he’s mentally grown up a little bit. He’s made a lot of plays -- a lot of plays this spring.”
DE JAMES GAYLE: He showed flashes last year, but was a better practice player than he was a gamer. Wiles guessed it was a matter of confidence, but he brought a new attitude into the offseason and won the Hokies’ prestigious Excalibur Award for his work in the weight room. He’s now playing with a purpose. “He made his mind up after the year was over that he was going to be a difference-maker,” Wiles said. “He had a phenomenal offseason. ... The transition rolled right over into spring ball. He’s been a special cat out there.”
DE J.R. COLLINS: He started the spring a little bit slow, but continued to show progress with each practice and scrimmage. Last Friday night in one of the Hokies’ scrimmages, Collins earned the highest points on the team and was awarded the famed lunch pail. “He really got on an upward trend,” Wiles said.
Wiles knows he can’t play the whole season with just those four players, so developing the depth between now and the season opener will be critical. Right now, Tyrel Wilson is a No. 2 defensive end and Duan Perez-Means is the other backup end. They’re being pushed, though, by former linebacker Quillie Odom and Zack McCray.
At 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, McCray is still learning the position as a redshirt freshman. He could still be a year away from a strength standpoint, Wiles said.
“He’s got to become more physical,” Wiles said. “He thinks he’s playing hard when he’s not all the time. It’s my job to get him over the hump and to get him to that point where he can be real productive for us, but he does have the tools.”
Inside, Wiles is looking for five defensive tackles he can count on, and Kwamaine Battle, who tore his ACL, came back this spring about 15 pounds overweight and out of shape.
“I trust the kid,” Wiles said. “I know what I’m going to get out of him, but we have to have a great summer with him.”
Dwight Tucker had a high-ankle sprain and missed all of the spring, but he could be in the mix, and Isaiah Hamlette got a lot of reps this spring. Wiles said redshirt freshman Nick Acree isn’t ready to go yet. Because they’re looking for another playmaker inside, Wiles said there won’t be any hesitation to audition some of the true freshmen who will join the team this summer, starting with Kris Harley.
“We’ve got to bring along some guys,” Wiles said. “People are going to get nicked up. We’re not going to play guys just to play guys. We want production. We’re not going to change our expectations. You’ve got to come up to where we are and the level of defense we have to play. We’ve got some guys who need to get better.”