NCF Nation: Antoine Hopkins

Early in the regular season, Virginia Tech’s defense had already lost starting outside linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and starting defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins to season-ending knee injuries. Starting defensive end James Gayle had missed a couple of games, along with starting cornerback Jayron Hosley.

Just when it seemed it couldn’t get much worse, Virginia Tech lost linebacker Bruce Taylor – arguably the leader of the defense and the unit’s best player - to a season-ending mid-foot sprain. In a span of four games, the Hokies had lost three starters.

“That’s when you said, ‘Man, enough is enough,’” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “We haven’t had as many injuries on the defensive side in, I don’t know, forever, the 25 years I’ve been here.”

[+] EnlargeLuther Maddy
James Lang/US PresswireLuther Maddy, here bringing down Virginia QB Michael Rocco, is among the true freshmen contributing to Virginia Tech's improved defense.
And yet in spite of it all, with two true freshmen in the two-deep at defensive tackle, Virginia Tech enters the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Michigan with one of the nation’s top defenses. And the Hokies are going to need it. Those who have paid close attention to Virginia Tech’s defense under Foster would probably agree that this has been one of the best coaching jobs of his career. Not only did the Hokies make dramatic improvements from 2010, but they also did it with a young, inexperienced lineup forced into action because of injuries. Now they have to maintain that success against one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Denard Robinson.

“The most recent guy we’ve probably faced like him was Pat White a few years ago at West Virginia,” Foster said. “I think he’s very similar to that guy. He’s a game-breaker. He’s a big-time athlete. He can beat you running the ball, he can beat you throwing the football. He’s just a dynamic football player, a dynamic athlete. And then he’s got some good skill guys around him to take the pressure off of him.

“He makes people miss in the hole. He jukes him and he’s off for a 40-yard touchdown. Those are things he does … and they’re using him the right way – quarterback sweeps, quarterback powers, quarterback zone play, quarterback draws. They’re doing everything. They’ve adapted to what they have and he’s done it very, very well.”

Then again, so is Foster’s defense.

Last year, Virginia Tech’s defense finished No. 52 in the country in total defense, allowing 361.5 yards per game. This year, the Hokies are No. 13 in total defense, allowing almost 50 fewer yards per game. Last year they were No. 26 in scoring defense. This year they’re No. 8, holding opponents to 17.2 points per game. After putting the No. 64 rushing defense on the field in 2010, the Hokies improved to No. 17 this year, allowing just 107.8 yards per game.

“There’s no question it was a heck of a job,” coach Frank Beamer said. “I think the people we lost, and then the people replacing them – you’ve got two true freshmen defensive tackles – that’s not the place you want a true freshman in there. You want some experience in there. And then I think (cornerback) Kyle Fuller had a tremendous year, but him being able to move around and play some different positions and come through, that made a difference. I think the guys we lost, who we lost, and then to play as well as we have defensively, the championship game was a tough game for us, but up until that point, we really played some fantastic football for what we’ve been through and the injuries we had on our defense.”

For almost the entire Wake Forest game Oct. 15, the Hokies were playing without four opening-day starters, including Hosley (hamstring), and Gayle (ankle), in addition to Hopkins and Gouveia-Winslow.

By the third quarter against Boston College a week later, Virginia Tech was missing those four, plus Taylor and Gouveia-Winslow’s backup, Alonzo Tweedy, who sprained his ankle. Two true freshmen — Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall — have taken over one of the defensive tackle positions on the two-deep. Two redshirt sophomores — Tariq Edwards and Telvion Clark — are holding down a linebacker spot.

“It all goes back to our players and our coaches,” Foster said. “We were a young group, and I’m proud of them. We had an expectation, we talked about how we wanted to get back and play the kind of defense we’re used to around here. We started that back in January. I’m proud of our kids that they stepped up and bought into that and knew that’s what we needed to get back to. I still think we’ve got a lot of room to grow, which is exciting, but then to have the injuries on top of that, and some key players, and to have some young guys step up at various times, it’s been fun to watch.”

Hokies, Michigan succeed by adapting

December, 31, 2011
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Bud Foster, Al BorgesIcon Sports MediaVirginia Tech's Bud Foster and Michigan's Al Borges have benefitted from being flexible.

NEW ORLEANS -- If ever a coach had earned the right to be stubborn about his system, it'd be Bud Foster.

He has coordinated Virginia Tech's defense for the past 16 seasons, and the unit has finished in the top 12 nationally on 10 occasions (the Hokies currently rank 13th in total defense). He has had 34 players drafted in the NFL, 45 different players score touchdowns and at least one player earn All-America honors in all 16 seasons.

The pillars of Foster's defenses -- speed, athleticism, pressure, opportunistic play -- have become synonymous with Virginia Tech's program.

Foster could enter rooms with "My Way" blaring in the background if he wanted to. But he doesn't.

His success isn't tied to stubbornness. He has adapted over time, while maintaining an attacking foundation.

"It's changed a lot but it hasn't changed a lot," Foster said Friday. "We were more of an eight-man front group in the mid-1990s through probably the mid-2000s. You were seeing a lot more two-back offenses at that time. ... We've just tweaked things year in and year out. We're always trying to make it a little better."

Michigan made more than a few tweaks in its offense this year, as coordinator Al Borges integrated some of his pro-style elements while maintaining a spread framework. The results were predictably choppy, but Michigan still scored more points (410) than it did in 2010, when the offense set several team and individual records.

Although Foster has led the Virginia Tech defense since 1995 and Borges had led the Michigan offense only since January, both have benefited from being flexible.

"He's like we have been offensively," Borges said of Foster. "Their defense is ever-evolving."

The next step in the evolution takes place Tuesday night at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, as Virginia Tech's defense and Michigan's offense square off in a fascinating matchup.

Both units faced some obstacles to reach this point. A look at Virginia Tech's defensive depth chart shows seven sophomores and a freshman in the starting lineup. The Hokies were hit particularly hard by injuries this season, losing starters Antoine Hopkins, Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and Bruce Taylor as well as key reserves like Kwamaine Battle.

Despite the losses and the abundance of youth, Virginia Tech maintained its standards on defense, ranking in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense (17.2 ppg), total defense (313.9), pass-efficiency defense (111.8), rushing defense (107.8 ypg) and sacks (2.92 spg).

"[Foster] has enough flexibility," Borges said. "He's been there a long time. That system, although he's got some young players, that system that he has ... they know it. ... You're not teaching every little tiny thing, and you can start dealing more with nuance and things like that. Bud's at that point because he's been there so long."

Borges inherited a more seasoned offense and benefited from a lack of major injuries. His challenge was blending what he had done for decades with personnel suited to a vastly different scheme, particularly junior quarterback Denard Robinson.

"You can see they've done a great job adapting to their talent," Foster said. "But then, there's nothing real fancy about them, either. They're going to line up and hit you in the mouth and be physical."

Virginia Tech must not only contain Robinson on Tuesday night but be wary of Michigan's power game, which features sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and a big offensive line led by All-America center David Molk.

While the Hokies boast good size at defensive tackle, they're giving up a few pounds elsewhere. Sophomore defensive end J.R. Collins checks in at 240, while outside linebacker Alonzo Tweedy weighs just 189 pounds.

"We obviously have to get off on the football and be physical," Foster said. "That's what [Michigan] is going to do."

Virginia Tech has faced mobile quarterbacks in the past -- former West Virginia star Pat White among them -- and practiced against one the past few seasons in Tyrod Taylor. But linebacker Jack Fuller said Robinson gives the Hokies a look they haven't seen this season.

The closest comparison, according to Tyler, is Clemson's Tajh Boyd, who torched the Hokies in the ACC title game (240 pass yards, 3 TDs).

"But [Boyd's] not much of a scrambler," Fuller said. "He's quick and he can run the ball, but they look for Denard to run the ball. They have set plays for him and that's part of their offense, getting him to run the ball and getting that extra blocker."

Michigan also must adjust to some different elements from Virginia Tech, which doesn't shy away from press coverage and has the athletes to do so.

"It is a challenge," Robinson said. "They have some unique defenses and great athletes."

Added Toussaint: "They are very athletic at every position and play every play with maximum effort."

Virginia Tech's defense and Michigan's offense both should be improved in 2012, as only a handful of players depart each unit.

Both groups will look to use Tuesday night's game as a springboard.

"This is a big step for all of us," Toussaint said.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 6

October, 6, 2011
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Here are 10 things worth keeping an eye on this week in the ACC, in no particular order:

1. Bowl eligibility. If Clemson and Georgia Tech both win this weekend, they will become the first teams in the conference and only two of seven in the country to become bowl eligible this week.

2. The Coastal Division standings. One team -- Miami or Virginia Tech -- will drop to 0-2 in the ACC race. With Georgia Tech off to a 2-0 start for the first time under coach Paul Johnson, it’s a borderline elimination game in Blacksburg, though it’s not unheard of in the ACC for a three-loss team to play its way into the ACC title game.

[+] EnlargeDavid Wilson
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesCan Miami stop one of the ACC's leading rushers in David Wilson?
3. Run defenses in Blacksburg. Miami and Virginia Tech have two of the ACC’s leading rushers in Lamar Miller and David Wilson, respectively. The Hokies lost starting defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins to a season-ending knee injury, and Miami’s rushing defense is No. 104 in the country. Miller is the first Hurricane to begin a season with four-straight games of 100 or more rushing yards in at least the past 30 years. Wilson is the fourth Tech back of the ACC era to post four or more games with 100 or more rushing yards in a season.

4. Quarterbacks in Blacksburg. How will Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas respond to last week’s 20-3 loss to Clemson? Can Jacory Harris go two games without throwing an interception against a Virginia Tech defense that has had at least one interception in each of the past 12 games?

5. Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel. If he plays -- and he is expected to play -- how will Manuel look in his first game back since he injured his shoulder on Sept. 17 against Oklahoma? Manuel returned to practice this week, but it’s been a while since he’s been hit in a game.

6. Pass defenses in Winston-Salem. Both Florida State and Wake Forest have fallen below expectations in the running game this year, and the passing games have carried their respective offenses. Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price will face the best defense he has seen yet this season, as the Noles are No. 13 in the country in pass defense. Don’t sleep on the Deacs’ secondary, though, as cornerback Merrill Noel of Pahokee, Fla., could grow into the same category as Alphonso Smith.

7. Big plays in Atlanta. Yes, Georgia Tech can eat up the clock with its drives, but Maryland needs to be wary of its big-play capabilities as well. Georgia Tech has had four pass plays and two rushing plays of 70-plus yards this season. The Yellow Jackets have produced 40 plays of at least 20 yards this season and have allowed opponents just 15 plays of 20-plus yards.

8. BC running back Montel Harris. He played a full game for the first time this season last weekend against Wake Forest and had 22 carries for 108 yards. Harris needs 868 yards in his final seven games of the year to break the 37-year-old ACC career rushing record held by former NC State great Ted Brown (4,602). He would need to average 124 yards a game over the final seven games. Last year against Clemson, Harris had 37 carries for 143 yards rushing and had a 36-yard receiving touchdown, Boston College’s only offensive touchdown of the game.

9. UNC running back Giovani Bernard against Louisville’s run D. Louisville has the nation’s No. 13 rushing defense, holding opponents to just 85 yards per game. Bernard has rushed for 100 yards in three straight games. He is the first UNC player to do so since Natrone Means in 1992.

10. Turnovers in Raleigh. Central Michigan has lost the ball 10 times this season, two fumbles and eight interceptions. NC State has returned two fumbles for touchdowns this season, and is tied for fourth in the country with eight interceptions.
Virginia Tech defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins can remember a moment at his grandmother’s house when he was little and fell off a see-saw. His older brother, Antoine, used the see-saw to “smush” him.

The Hopkins have plenty of memories together, but they both agreed that none could possibly compare to the ones they will make this season when they line up next to each other as starters on Virginia Tech’s defensive line.

[+] EnlargeAntoine Hopkins
Geoff Burke/Getty ImagesThe Hokies are expecting Antoine Hopkins and his brother Derrick to anchor their defensive line.
“This one will go down in the books,” said Antoine.

The last brothers to play side-by-side for the Hokies were Blake and Brett Warren at linebacker in the mid 2000s. The last pair of brothers to line up at defensive tackle were Kevin and Jonathan Lewis, who started in the mid-2000s. There was also defensive end Orion Martin and his brother, Cam, a linebacker, and offensive linemen T.J. and Todd Washington in the mid-1990s.

“Playing with him on this level is crazy,” Antoine said. “It won’t be the first time playing side by side, but at Virginia tech, he’s a sophomore, he played as a true freshman, he’s doing big things, his big brother is beside him. What more could you ask for?”

Antoine, a redshirt junior, is the only returning starter up front for the Hokies this season, but the potential of the front four is reminiscent of some of Virginia Tech’s stingiest defenses under coordinator Bud Foster. Just how fearsome this foursome can be, though, depends in part on how the Hopkins brothers fare on the interior. Both made significant strides this spring, and could be difference-makers this fall.

Antoine started the final 12 games of last season and finished with 45 tackles, including two sacks and 6.5 for loss. He also had seven quarterback hurries. Derrick was one of only two true freshmen to play for the Hokies last season and was named the top defensive newcomer of spring practices. He was in the two-deep last year, but defensive line coach Charley Wiles said Derrick “kind of leveled off a little bit at the end of the year.” This spring, though, he matured, and will push his brother to be the team’s top tackle.

“There’s no competition at all,” Derrick said. “That’s the way we were raised. We support each other and back each other up.”

And they have made each other better.

They live together, they practice together, and Antoine’s experiences both on and off the field helped speed up Derrick’s freshman learning curve.

“I think the biggest part was just the whole comfort level,” Antoine said. “I knew the ropes here. I could point him in the right direction, but he’s actually helped me a lot. I have a younger brother here, so I had to step my game up. I couldn’t make as many mistakes because he’s watching. He learns from my mistakes. He came in the first year and adapted very well.”

Playing for the same school wasn’t something they said they planned -- it just happened. Derrick was considering other schools, like Georgia and Boston College, but in the end said Virginia Tech was the best fit for him.

Of course, his brother might have played a small role in the recruiting factor.

“It’s a blessing,” Derrick said. “With this situation, me and my brother playing the same position at Virginia Tech, it’s a blessing from the lord. It’s rare. People don’t get to do this every day.”
Virginia Tech has been a model of consistency over the past seven seasons, and coordinator Bud Foster's defense has been at the heart of it.

Last year, though, it took a noticeable dive.

From 2004-2009, Foster's defense ranked no worse than 12th in the nation in total defense, and ranked among the top five in the nation four times. Last season, the Hokies fell to No. 52 in the country, allowing a total of 5,061 yards (361.5 per game). No other ACC defense allowed more plays of more than 20 yards than Virginia Tech, which had 68 last season.

With three new starters on the defensive line and the graduation of two veterans from the secondary in Rashad Carmichael and Davon Morgan, Virginia Tech's defense will either mature quickly this fall or have another average season.

Prediction: Virginia Tech will rejoin the nation's elite defenses in 2011. Here are three reasons why:

1. Bud Foster. He is the one who set the standard, and his players are well-aware of Virginia Tech's defensive tradition and have said they feel a responsibility to uphold it. This spring, in order to find a little bit of extra motivation and leadership, Foster awarded the storied "lunch pail" to the defender who earned it every practice.

2. The defensive line. While depth up front remains both a question and a concern, the starting four have earned the trust and praise of assistant coach Charley Wiles. Defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins, his brother Derrick Hopkins, defensive end James Gayle, and defensive end J.R. Collins have the potential to bring Virginia Tech's defense back to the standard fans have come to know and expect. They key is for all of them to stay healthy.

3. Cornerback Jayron Hosley is one of the best players in the country. It never hurts to have an All-American in your defensive backfield. He led the nation last season in interceptions per game (nine in 13 games, or .69) and finished fifth in passes defended with 17, or 1.31 per game. He's also one of the top punt returners in the nation.

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:

[+] EnlargeAntoine Hopkins
Geoff Burke/Getty ImagesThe Hokies are expecting big things out of Antoine Hopkins in 2011.
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.”

Spring preview: Coastal Division

February, 15, 2011
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We've already looked at who and what to watch in the Atlantic Division this spring. Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program in the Coastal Division:

DUKE

Spring practice starts: Feb. 16

Spring game: March 26

What to watch:
  • Jim Knowles taking over as defensive coordinator. After coaching the safeties last season, Knowles was promoted in late January following the departure of Marion Hobby to coach Clemson’s defensive line. It’s not a complete overhaul on defense, but for the third time in as many seasons, a different person will be calling the plays. Knowles has also assumed the lead role with Duke’s practice scheduling and weekly preparation.
  • New faces at linebacker. Duke graduated its leading tackler from 2010, Abraham Kromah, and freshman All-American Kelby Brown is out while recovering from knee surgery. Those two slots will be wide open this spring and the competition will be among Austin Gamble, C.J. France, Tyree Glover and Kevin Rojas.
  • Offensive line shuffling. The Blue Devils return four starters up front, but they’ll be missing the glue of the line in Bryan Morgan, who graduated. Brian Moore, who has started the past two seasons at right guard, will make the transition to center. John Coleman and Laken Tomlinson are expected to compete for the right guard spot.
GEORGIA TECH

Spring practice starts: March 28 (tentative)

Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • Starting quarterback competition. Tevin Washington enters the spring at No. 1 on the depth chart, and it's his job to lose, as he has the most experience after taking over for injured starter Joshua Nesbitt in 2010. Synjyn Days will give him legitimate competition this spring, though, and it will increase this summer with the addition of standout recruit Vad Lee to the roster. For now, though, it’s between Washington and Days, as David Sims is expected to move to B-back.
  • Offensive line reshuffling. Georgia Tech will have to replace three starters in all-conference center Sean Bedford, right tackle Austin Barrick and left tackle Nick Claytor, who decided to leave early for the NFL draft. Phil Smith, Barrick’s backup last year, is the only one with any experience at tackle. The staff will likely have to move a player or two from guard to tackle, and only it knows who those candidates might be right now.
  • Revamped secondary. Jerrard Tarrant's decision to leave school early and enter the NFL draft left the Jackets without any returning starters in the secondary. Junior cornerback Rod Sweeting, sophomore cornerback Louis Young, redshirt freshman cornerback Ryan Ayers and sophomore safety Fred Holton are front-runners, but they all have a lot to prove this spring. Holton and Young played sparingly as true freshmen and combined for 21 tackles. Sweeting played in all 13 games and had one fumble recovery and eight passes defended, including one interception. Senior cornerback Michael Peterson may help, and safety Jemea Thomas played as a true freshman in 2009 but redshirted last year. There’s some talent, but the inexperience makes it a question mark.
MIAMI

Spring practice starts: March 5

Spring game: April 9 or 16

What to watch:
  • New staff, new schemes. Defensively, first-year coordinator Mark D’Onofrio will work with two other assistants who were with him and first-year coach Al Golden at Temple, so there is familiarity there. Linebackers coach Michael Barrow has to learn D’Onofrio’s system, but the players tend to pick it up faster if the majority of the staff is already acclimated to it. Offensively, everyone will be working together for the first time. Jedd Fisch wants to run a pure pro-style offense based on matchups, and the good news is that several of the assistants, because of their respective backgrounds, are already schooled in at least a version of it.
  • Quarterback battle. Golden has said he would like to name a starter by the end of the spring, making these practices critical auditions for both Jacory Harris and Stephen Morris. Harris has both flourished and flopped as a starter for the Canes, and his injury last year gave Morris the opportunity he needed to win the people’s choice award. Has a new era of quarterback begun, or will Harris finally have the breakout season Miami fans have waited for in his final year as a Cane?
  • Corner competition. Following the departures of Ryan Hill, DeMarcus Van Dyke and Brandon Harris, Brandon McGee is the only corner remaining on the roster with any significant experience. He played in 11 games, started one, and had 15 tackles. Redshirt freshman Devont’a Davis, sophomore Kacey Rodgers, and redshirt sophomore Jamal Reid will also compete for playing time. There are also several incoming freshmen who could be immediate contributors.
NORTH CAROLINA

Spring practice starts: March 16

Spring game: April 9

What to watch:
  • The rookie quarterbacks. There’s no guarantee that Bryn Renner will be the Tar Heels’ starter in 2011, but he enters the spring slightly ahead of the race, as he was No. 2 on the depth chart last season and was pushing T.J. Yates for the starting job at this time a year ago. The staff would also like to see what true freshman Marquise Williams, who enrolled in January, has to offer. Braden Hanson and A.J. Blue will also compete for playing time. Blue was injured two years ago and redshirted last season.
  • Running backs race. The Tar Heels graduated three key players from 2010: Johnny White, Anthony Elzy and Shaun Draughn. Ryan Houston is back for his fifth year after redshirting last year and is the most experienced of the returnees. Giovani Bernard was a true freshman last year and had been expected to get some playing time, but he tore his ACL on the third day of training camp. It’s not clear yet how much he’ll be able to participate this spring. Hunter Furr played sparingly last year and true freshman Travis Riley, who enrolled in January, are also in the mix.
  • Another strong defensive line. If Quinton Coples was an all-conference selection as a defensive tackle, he could be scary good at his natural position, defensive end. Coples played there as a freshman and sophomore, but switched to tackle out of necessity last season. The defensive line should once again be the strength of the team, but it will be reconfigured again, as Coples’ move will leave a defensive tackle spot up for grabs. Junior college transfer Sylvester Williams, who enrolled in January, could fill that role.
VIRGINIA

Spring practice starts: March 16

Spring game: April 2

What to watch:
  • The search for a new starting quarterback. With Marc Verica graduated, the lead contenders to replace him are the ones who saw the field last year -- Michael Rocco and Ross Metheny. Neither of them started, but Rocco played in six games and Metheny five. Nobody has thrown the ball more than Rocco’s 25 times. The staff will also look at Michael Strauss, who redshirted last year, Miles Gooch, and David Watford, who enrolled in January.
  • Competition at running back. With leading rusher Keith Payne graduated, the question becomes what can Kevin Parks do after redshirting last year? There’s a lot of depth at the running back position, but Parks, the No. 56 running back in his class by ESPN.com and national prep record-setter out of the state of North Carolina, came to Charlottesville facing high expectations. With Payne gone, this could open the door for him to meet them, but returning starter Perry Jones will also be competing for carries.
  • Development of the receivers. In January, Jared Green Tweeted that he had decided to transfer after finishing his degree in Charlottesville this spring, according to a school spokesman. His departure, coupled with the graduation of Dontrelle Inman, leaves the Cavaliers without two of their top wideouts from 2010. With Tim Smith coming off an injury, the development of other receivers will be critical -- especially with a new starting quarterback.
VIRGINIA TECH

Spring practice starts: March 30

Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • Quarterback Logan Thomas. The Tyrod Taylor era is over, and Thomas is the front-runner to succeed the winningest quarterback in school history. Ju-Ju Clayton is the only other quarterback on the roster who’s ever taken a snap, and he’ll push Thomas this spring. It’s Thomas’ job to lose, but the staff is looking for him to improve his accuracy. He played quarterback in only his final two high school seasons and was projected as a tight end. He’s still raw and learning the position, but physically, he’s a clone of Cam Newton. If he develops some poise in the pocket, look out.
  • Competition on the defensive line. The Hokies have to replace starters John Graves (defensive tackle) and Steven Friday (defensive end), who both graduated. They’ve got Antoine Hopkins and Chris Drager back, but it’s possible Drager could move back to tight end after starting 10 games at defensive end last year. Tackle Kwamaine Battle, who started the first two games before he tore his ACL and Hopkins took over, is another front-runner. Hopkins’ younger brother, Derrick, will also be in the mix, along with James Gayle and J.R. Collins. Redshirt freshman defensive end Zack McCray, the cousin of Logan Thomas, has also impressed the staff so far.
  • Tight end auditions. The graduation of Andre Smith leaves the Hokies with only one returning tight end who’s caught a pass in a game, Randall Dunn (one). Redshirt freshman Eric Martin was the second tight end when the Hokies used two-tight end sets, but he missed three games mid-season with an injury.

Hokies take another hit

September, 12, 2010
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Virginia Tech starting defensive tackle Kwamaine Battle will miss the rest ofthe season after suffering a torn ACL in his left knee in Saturday's 21-16 loss to James Madison.

Battle, who started the first two games for the Hokies and made one tackle, will have surgery on Friday at Montgomery Regional Hospital in Blacksburg.

Battle will be replaced by redshirt sophomore Antoine Hopkins in the starting lineup. The backup spot will be determined this week in practice. It’s another significant loss to a line that was already missing defensive end Chris Drager this past weekend with a knee injury.
Before the calendar even hit March, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster and his staff had already met with each of the players individually as part of their weekly academic meetings. Before spring practices began, Foster spoke to the defense as an entire group, so everyone got the same message: in Blacksburg: “Defense is king.”

After losing six starters from last year’s 10-3 team, there are plenty of young players on the roster this year who will be expected to uphold that tradition this fall.

“We make sure right up front, we want them to know we’ve got a tradition here, an expectation here, and those expectations aren’t going to change,” Foster said. “They’ve got to come up to our level, and the thing about us here, defense is king. As good as we’ve been, we also went through a stretch there where we won 10 or 11 games with 100th-ranked offense. I want them to know we’ve won games around here just by playing great defense, and that’s not going to change. It’s their responsibility to carry the torch, so to speak.”

[+] EnlargeRashad Carmichael
Bob Donnan/US PresswireVeterans like Rashad Carmichael will be counted on in 2010.
It’s not an easy task, as no other defense in the FBS has played more consistently than the Hokies. Virginia Tech finished nationally in the top 12 in total defense in each of the past six years, five times in the top 7. Over the past six seasons -- a span of 80 games -- Virginia Tech has allowed its opponents an average of just 268.33 yards per game. The next-best team in the country during that span? Alabama.

“We know what it takes,” Foster said. “We’ve been doing it a long time and we’ve had a lot of success. We’ve got the formula for success here, at least I think we’ve got it cornered a little bit. It’s just getting the kids to understand that’s what our expectations are, and you’ve got a certain responsibility to live up to those expectations, and understand this is what it’s going to take for you to be successful, for you to be on the field, your work ethic and how we want you to do certain things a certain way.”

The older players on the team, like boundary corner Rashad Carmichael, take seriously their role in ushering the younger players along.

“It goes back to recruiting and us guys on that defense trying to build a brotherhood more than anything,” Carmichael said. “That’s the kind of player I am. If you put it on the line for your brother, then the game will go a little bit easier. It just feels great when you can look to the left and the right and see guys who are ready. A lot of teams on this level don’t have that chemistry. It’s more of a family here. I’m confident.”

The defensive line, particularly the defensive tackles, is the biggest question mark. Virginia Tech has to replace three of four starters and talented backup tackle Demetrius Taylor. Veteran tackle John Graves returns as the lone starter, and he is expected to be the leader of the entire defense, not just the line. Antoine Hopkins should be the starter opposite Graves, but the staff needs to find quality depth on the interior.

Despite the loss of Cody Grimm, Foster said he is confident in his linebackers, a group that progressed as the year went along, but there will be some competition in the secondary, particularly at safety where Kam Chancellor was the anchor. Free safety is the position that does most of the communication and checks, so he’ll need a leader there. Foster will look at junior Eddie Whitley, and sophomore Antone Exum, a highly recruited player, among others.

Foster doesn’t have much time to prepare the younger players for their Labor Day matchup against Boise State, which will again have one of the most productive offenses in the country. Then again, it’s not like Foster hasn’t had to reload before.

“We’re inexperienced, we’re going to be very inexperienced on the defensive side of the ball,” Foster said. “But at the same time, that’s not a bad thing. I think we’re going to have a good mix of guys who have played. We’ve got a good mix of guys who are leaders, and at the same time we have some young, hungry guys. Sometimes that can really be even better for you than maybe having a bunch of guys come back who think they’re going to be pretty good. I kind of like that challenge a little bit more sometimes. We’ve had some of our best years when people thought we weren’t going to be as good.”

Usually in their best years, though, defense was king.

What to watch in the ACC this spring

February, 15, 2010
2/15/10
10:00
AM ET
Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program heading into the spring:

BOSTON COLLEGE

Spring practice starts: March 18

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

• How linebacker Mark Herzlich progresses. Herzlich, who was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma cancer last May, has been going through winter conditioning with his teammates, and he plans on participating in spring drills. How quickly he regains his form will be worth watching, as he and sophomore Luke Kuechly could give the Eagles one of the most formidable linebacking corps.

• The quarterback battle. After one season, Dave Shinskie has the most experience on the roster, but he’ll get some competition from Josh Bordner and Chase Rettig, two early enrollees. There were times last season when Shinskie looked like the future of the position and there were others when he looked like any other freshman.

• Defensive linemen. For the second straight year, BC is looking for some stability up front. The Eagles have to replace left tackle Austin Giles and defensive end Jim Ramella. They return Kaleb Ramsey, Giles’ backup, and Brad Newman, Ramella’s reserve, but some young faces are likely to be seen in the rotation.

CLEMSON

Spring practice starts: March 7

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

• Life without C.J. Spiller officially begins. The backs behind him had a pretty good year, so there’s no need for full panic mode. Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington actually combined for a higher yards per carry average (6.1 to 5.6 yards). Clemson will also be looking to replace Spiller’s lost kickoff return yardage. The Tigers had a 13-yard advantage in average starting field position, as their start was their own 37-yard line compared to opponents’ 24-yard line. Ellington is a candidate in the return game.

• Kyle Parker’s batting average. No, really. How well Parker does this spring with the baseball team will help determine whether he remains Clemson’s quarterback or turns to the MLB draft. He didn’t have a great 2009 season, but he was still the fastest player to 25 home runs in school history. It remains to be seen this spring if he’ll become a high enough draft choice to give up college football.

• Secondary shuffling. It seems like eons ago since Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor weren’t the Tigers’ starting corners, as Butler started 40 straight games and Chancellor started 42. Butler finished his career second in school history in interception return yards. Now it’s time for a new duo. Will Marcus Gilchrist move to corner, which he’s capable of doing? Might Rashard Hall move to safety with DeAndre McDaniel?

DUKE

Spring practice starts: Feb. 14

Spring game: March 27

What to watch:

• Quarterback competition. Somebody has to take over for the graduated Thaddeus Lewis, but his backup – Sean Renfree – will miss the spring with a torn ACL. Redshirt freshman Sean Schroeder should be heavily in the mix to be the starter, pending Renfree’s recovery.

• Defensive line makeover. It’s wide open. Charlie Hatcher is entrenched at nose guard, but it’s really anyone’s game. The staff might move redshirt senior Wesley Oglesby, who played the majority of his career at defensive end, inside. Other options are defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento, a redshirt freshman, and Curtis Hazelton, who played sparingly last season.

• Johnny Williams’ move from wide receiver to cornerback. He had 31 catches in 2009 – the fourth-best on the team. Now they need his help in the defensive backfield. Duke will lose starter Leon Wright and his 10 career interceptions, and the pass defense, which allowed 215.75 yards per game, could use a boost.

FLORIDA STATE

Spring practice starts: March 16

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

• Christian Ponder’s return from shoulder surgery. Ponder is expected to practice this spring, though it could be on a limited basis, at least early. He’s ahead of schedule, but the coaches won’t subject him to any risks now. Yes, E.J. Manuel is talented and played well at the end of the season, but make no mistake – Ponder is FSU’s starter and a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.

• The defense under first-year coordinator Mark Stoops. His secondary, in particular, will be interesting to watch, as will how quickly he can help the front seven generate a pass rush and plug the middle. Stoops has been a secondary coach, and the Noles lost three starters there. The fourth, Ochuko Jenije, could be pushed to retain his job.

• New faces, new opportunities. In addition to the fab freshmen who are coming in, FSU has a handful of unfamiliar players already on the roster who played sparingly or not at all. We'll see how they fit in this spring. RS-So DT Anthony McCloud and RS-So RB Debrale Smiley are both junior college transfers and former teammates. Physically, freshman linebacker Jeff Luc is already a man, but how quickly can he mature on the field? Two young wide receivers worth watching are Rodney Smith and Willie Haulstead.

GEORGIA TECH

Spring practice starts: March 29

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

• The defensive transformation. The Jackets will switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 under first-year coordinator Al Groh. In addition to learning the new scheme, the staff has to figure out who goes where. Linebackers might play defensive end and vice versa, safeties might play outside linebacker. It’s anyone’s guess as to how this team lines up in the spring.

• The replacements. From Georgia Tech’s coaching staff to the new faces who will be tasked with filling in for the Fab Four -- Jonathan Dwyer, Derrick Morgan, Morgan Burnett and Demaryius Thomas -- the Jackets will need some “Hello My Name Is” tags this spring.

• The offensive line. Three offensive linemen redshirted who could start, and Georgia Tech might need them to, especially if guard Joseph Gilbert decides to transfer to pursue his MBA. The Jackets lose two starters on the offensive line, and Gilbert, who graduates this spring, would be a third if he leaves. Center Sean Bedford and tackle Austin Barrick return as seniors.

MARYLAND

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

• The quarterback competition. Chris Turner has graduated, leaving Jamarr Robinson the top option going into the spring, but he has limited experience. The staff liked what he did when Turner was injured, but Danny O’Brien, Miami (Ohio) transfer Clay Belton and C.J. Brown will all be given an opportunity. Look for O’Brien to start the spring at No. 2 on the depth chart.

• Cornerback: Cameron Chism is the only returning starter in the secondary, but right now the staff has fewer concerns about the safeties. Maryland will have to find some bodies at corner, and Dexter McDougle, who redshirted as a true freshman last year, is one option. Michael Carter and Trenton Hughes, who was the third corner last year, are also among a handful of candidates.

• The offensive line. Losing Bruce Campbell to the NFL hurt, but the Terps also lost starter Phil Costa. Justin Gilbert, a redshirt sophomore, could inherit Campbell’s job. And there’s always Mr. Versatility -- Paul Pinegar. He has helped the Terps at both tackle spots and left guard, and this spring he’ll likely be given a shot at center.

MIAMI

Spring practice starts: Feb. 23

Spring game: March 27 (tentative)

What to watch:

• Tight end/offensive line: Jimmy Graham is gone, and the Canes don’t return any tight ends with any experience other than Richard Gordon, who was injured the majority of last season. Miami signed four tight ends in this recruiting class, but none of them were early enrollees. Miami has to replace three starters up front, including both tackles and the center.

• How the two young quarterbacks perform: The health of Jacory Harris was precious last year, as he had nobody behind him with any experience after the transfers of Taylor Cook and Cannon Smith. The depth has improved a bit with A.J. Highsmith, who played sparingly last year, and Stephen Morris, one of the early enrollees.

• Upgrade on the d-line? Progress up front began with the hire of Rick Petri as defensive line coach, and it’s up to Petri to help the Canes become better pass rushers. Miami will depend upon its two mainstays -- Allen Bailey and Josh Holmes. The right end position was a group effort last year, and Miami has to replace Joe Joseph and Eric Moncur.

NORTH CAROLINA

Spring practice starts: March 15

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

• Quarterback T.J. Yates. It’s his job to lose, and the coaching staff still has confidence in him, but Bryn Renner is waiting in the wings, and Braden Hanson will also be given an opportunity. The staff is looking for the offense to improve its passing efficiency and cut down on turnovers.

• The offensive line. It was a patchwork effort in 2009, thanks to injuries and inexperience, and will be a major key in how much UNC improves offensively this year. The Heels have to replace two starters, and Jonathan Cooper is likely to move from guard to center, and right guard Alan Pelc will miss spring drills while recovering from shoulder surgery.

• Defensive line tweaks. There aren’t many questions on a defense that should be one of the best in the country, but somebody has to replace Cam Thomas and defensive end E.J. Wilson. Tydreke Powell is the frontrunner to take over at defensive tackle and Quinton Coples at defensive end. Both were backups last year at their respective positions.

NC STATE

Spring practice starts: March 9

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

• Backup quarterback Mike Glennon. Russell Wilson is the starter, but he’s going to be playing baseball all spring. Keep an eye on his backup to see if Glennon can make it any more of a competition in Wilson’s absence.

• Chris Ward at punter. No, it’s not usually, the highlight of the spring, but in this case, it’s necessary. Ward is it -- he’s their only option right now, and it’s a position the Pack struggled with last year. Ward was expected to be the starter last season, but he was inconsistent. He’s definitely got the talent to be the guy.

• The recovery of linebacker Nate Irving. After being severely injured in a one-car crash last summer, Irving is hopeful he can go through spring drills. He has been lifting with the team and running with the sports medicine staff, but it’s still uncertain how limited his contact will be.

VIRGINIA

Spring practice starts: March 15

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

• Quarterback competition. Marc Verica is the only one with any experience, and first-year offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor hasn’t been in Charlottesville long enough to evaluate any of the candidates. That’s what the spring is for, and true freshman Michael Strauss is the lone incoming quarterback on campus, so he’ll have a head start on the playbook. Of the four quarterbacks Virginia signed in this year’s class, Strauss is the only one listed as a true quarterback. The Cavs also have Ross Metheny, who redshirted last year, and Riko Smalls, who redshirted in ‘08 and was No. 2 on the depth chart when Verica was out with a concussion.

• Coaching transition. First-year coach Mike London has hired almost an entirely new staff, and they’ll bring changes in philosophy and scheme. London has said he wants to get the defense back to the traditional 4-3, and revert to the tradition of featuring the tight ends, offensive linemen and running backs.

• Running back. The Cavs will have the help up front, but they need to replace their four leading rushers in Mikell Simpson, Rashawn Jackson, Vic Hall and Jameel Sewell. The staff will look at true freshman Kevin Parks, but also have Torrey Mack and Dominique Wallace, who had just seemed to be coming on at Southern Miss when he was injured and missed the rest of the season.

VIRGINIA TECH

Spring practice starts: March 31

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

• Revamped defensive line. The Hokies have to replace three of four starters up front. The only defensive ends with significant playing time are Chris Drager, who the staff wanted to move back to tight end, and Steven Friday. Redshirt freshmen will be given a chance – Duan Perez-Means, Tyrel Wilson, James Gayle and J.R. Collins – but they’ve never played. Isaiah Hamlette is the only other end who’s played and that was a skinny minute. At defensive tackle, Antoine Hopkins will be the frontrunner to replace Cordarrow Thompson.

• Darren Evans’ comeback. Evans, the team’s leading rusher in 2008, is working his way back from a season-ending ACL injury, and one of the biggest questions in Blacksburg is how the staff will divide the carries in such a talented backfield that includes Ryan Williams. With two returning 1,000-yard rushers, will David Wilson decide to redshirt? The spring will help him in that decision.

• The evolution of Tyrod Taylor. He’s going to be a senior, and with so many questions on defense heading into the season, the offense will be leading the way. This should be a breakout year for Taylor, who by now should have mastered the offense and should consistently be a passing threat to compliment his running abilities.

WAKE FOREST

Spring practice starts: March 16

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

• The quarterback competition. It’s the most glaring hole the Deacs have to fill this spring, as they’re tasked with replacing the winningest quarterback in school history, Riley Skinner, and his backup, Ryan McManus. Redshirt sophomores Ted Stachitas and Skylar Jones, and sophomore Brendan Cross, will compete with rookie Tanner Price for the top spot.

• Offensive line. The Deacs will take a huge hit here, as seven players in the two-deep depth chart were redshirt seniors, including all four tackles. Three starters have to be replaced.

• The interior defensive line. Nose guard Boo Robinson and John Russell have graduated, and Russell’s backup, Michael Lockett, was also a redshirt senior. The Deacs are in good shape at the ends, but will need some help inside.
Tags:

ACC, Russell Wilson, Darren Evans, Marc Verica, Boo Robinson, Phil Costa, Jamarr Robinson, Mike Glennon, David Wilson, Jimmy Graham, Jamie Harper, Michael Carter, Sean Renfree, Mikell Simpson, Austin Barrick, E.J. Wilson, Jacory Harris, Joe Joseph, Skylar Jones, T.J. Yates, Sean Bedford, Jonathan Dwyer, John Russell, Nate Irving, Thaddeus Lewis, E.J. Manuel, Ryan Williams, C.J. Spiller, Eric Moncur, Bruce Campbell, Demaryius Thomas, Rashawn Jackson, Cannon Smith, Tyrod Taylor, Ryan McManus, Chris Turner, Dave Shinskie, Cordarrow Thompson, Richard Gordon, Christian Ponder, Johnny Williams, Morgan Burnett, Riley Skinner, Derrick Morgan, Jameel Sewell, Allen Bailey, Mike London, Mark Herzlich, Taylor Cook, Leon Wright, Ted Stachitas, Jim Ramella, Jonathan Cooper, Mark Stoops, Cameron Chism, A.J. Highsmith, Braden Hanson, Bryn Renner, Paul Pinegar, Austin Giles, Kaleb Ramsey, CHris Chancellor, Andre Ellington, Luke Kuechly, Cam Thomas, Marcus Gilchrist, Chase Rettig, Michael Strauss, Tanner Price, Anthony McCloud, Debrale Smiley, Brendan Cross, Antoine Hopkins, Bill Lazor, Brad Newman, C.J. Brown, Charlie Hatcher, Chris Drager, Chris Hazelton, Chris Ward, Clay Belton, Crezdon Butler, Danny O\'Brien, DeAndrew McDaniel, Dexter McDougle, Dominique Wallace, Duan Perez-Means, Isaiah Hamlette, J.R. Collins, James Gayle, Joseph Gilbert, Josh Bordner, Josh Holmes, Justin Gilbert, Kevin Parks, Kyle Paker, Michael Lockett, Ochuko Jenije, Quinton Coples, Rahsard Hall, Rick Petri, Rodney Smith, Roko Smalls, Ross Metheny, Sean Schroeder, Stephen Morris, Sydney Sarmiento, Torrey Mack, Trenton Hughes, Tydreke Powell, Tyrel Wilson, Wesley Oglesby, Willie Haulstead

Scouting Virginia Tech's defense

February, 11, 2010
2/11/10
9:20
AM ET
The Hokies' defense will be one of the biggest questions in the ACC this preseason, as Virginia Tech has to replace six starters. Still, expectations are high heading into 2010 that Virginia Tech will be one of the best teams in the country. Much of that confidence comes from defensive coordinator Bud Foster's proven ability to reload.

Can he do it again?

Bud Foster
AP Photo/Steve HelberBud Foster will have some new pieces to work with this season.
Here's a closer look at exactly what Virginia Tech's situation is on defense heading into spring practice, and how much work the Hokies have to do:

  • Overall, Virginia Tech needs to replace three of four starters up front, outside linebacker, cornerback and free safety.
  • The only defensive ends with any significant playing time are Chris Drager, who the staff wanted to move back to tight end, and Steven Friday. There are a few redshirt freshmen you might get to know: Duan Perez-Means, Tyrel Wilson, James Gayle and J.R. Collins. Of course, the only problem with redshirt freshmen is that they haven't played yet. Isaiah Hamlette is the only other defensive end who has played, but that was extremely sparingly. It's possible the staff could move tackle John Graves back to end, where he practiced last spring, or possibly look at moving other players.
  • At defensive tackle, Antoine Hopkins will be the front-runner to replace Cordarrow Thompson, and he has experience so that shouldn't be too much of a concern.
  • At outside linebacker, Cody Grimm and Cam Martin have to be replaced, leaving a wide open competition.
  • At cornerback, Jayron Hosley or Cris Hill will likely take over for Stephan Virgil. No worries there.
  • At free safety, Eddie Whitley was Kam Chancellor’s backup, and the staff is confident in him. Antone Exum will also be given an opportunity.
  • The good news? Virginia Tech returns cornerback Rashad Carmichael, rover Davon Morgan, Graves at defensive tackle, and Lyndell Gibson at inside linebacker.
It's a lot to ask for a team that faces Boise State's offense on Labor Day, but the Hokies wouldn't be so highly ranked this preseason if people didn't think they could do it.

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