When talking about football, one of the most used phrases is that games “are won and lost in the trenches.” If that’s really the case, then the Virginia Tech Hokies should be in for quite the season
The defensive line returns all four starters from a defense that gave up 17 points a game last season, ranking seventh in the country. Defensive ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins combined for 15 sacks a year ago and defensive tackles Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy effectively plugged up the middle.
Tech not only return four starters, but also four other players who played a significant number of snaps last season. Junior Tyrel Wilson, sophomores Corey Marshall and Zack McCray and senior Antoine Hopkins all expect see a lot of the field this
That brings the total number of lineman in the playing rotation to eight. In a group of positions where coaches hope to have competent backups for most of the starters, the Hokies have enough players to field two whole productive defensive lines. Not only does that make it slightly easier on the coaches, having so many talented linemen, but it also creates a competitive environment in practice.
“It’s a friendly competition, but at the same time, when you step on the field, you’re competing with everybody,” McCray said. “It’s just like a brotherhood, we all respect each other as brothers but at the same time, we push each other to get better in all aspects.”
McCray, however, is not the only person that has something to work for this season. Antoine Hopkins, older brother of Derrick, started the first five games of last season before tearing his ACL in early October against Clemson. Antoine, currently listed as the co-starter at defensive tackle with Maddy, is surely looking to end his senior season in Blacksburg on a high note.
And while Gayle would appear to be about the need to prove anything, his stats in just nine games last year — seven sacks and a second team All-ACC selection — have many expecting Gayle to be skyrocketing up the career sacks list.
Not that he hasn’t exceeded expectations before. Gayle came to Blacksburg three years ago as a defensive end that was barely over 200 pounds, and is now a physical specimen at 269 pounds with a 4.6 seconds 40-yard dash.
“I pretty much put on all muscle, so I think I’m a lot more physically prepared out there,” Gayle said. “I felt like I could start my freshman year, to be honest.”
That ability and confidence will be on full display Labor Day night, as the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and their triple option offense come to town for a nationally televised game. The Yellow Jackets have routinely succeeded on the ground against the Hokies, averaging 300 rushing yards per game in the last three meetings.
Despite those numbers, the line is happy to play them in the first game of the season.
“I definitely think it’s a game that’s better to have at the beginning of the season,” Gayle said. “That’s a game that’s going to wear on your body, so it’s good to get it out of the way.”
And if there is one thing that could help the Hokies limit the Yellow Jacket offense, it could be in the trenches, where that deep rotation of players will come in handy.
“It is going to benefit us greatly,” Derrick Hopkins said, “because last year we had backups that weren’t experience enough or got a lot of playing time. This year we can rotate more.”
Not only will the depth help against Georgia Tech, but also for the entire season. The leading unit of an already stellar defensive side, no expectation seems too high.
“I think we have one of the top defenses in the country and our goal is to be the best in the country,” McCray said. “I think the sky’s the limit for us and if we can go out there and execute, we’ll be amazing.”
Great expectations, with the greatest coming from the unit itself.