Most people use words like “nasty,” “mean” or “vicious” to describe defensive tackles. But Derrick Hopkins is none of those things.
Yet, despite his diminutive personality both on and off the field, Hopkins has emerged as a key cog in Virginia Tech’s dominant defense.
“I’m a calm, cool, collected guy. I’m not really one to punch you out,” Hopkins said. “In the past, I’ve gotten a little rowdy, but now I’m kind of chill and calm.”
But a certain venom does lurk beneath the tackle’s calm demeanor. Hopkins put on an absolute clinic against Georgia Tech, earning player of the game honors for his part in helping hold the Yellow Jackets to a paltry 129 rushing yards.
“He played lights out,” said defensive line coach Charley Wiles. “Derrick is playing really well right now and it couldn’t happen to a better guy.”
Hopkins, or “Hop” as coaches and teammates affectionately call him, only recorded seven tackles on the day, but his overall effect in the game was monumental.
Georgia Tech’s offense functions best when there’s the threat of the quarterback or a running back running “dive” plays right at the defensive tackles. And Hopkins completely eliminated that element of the offense for the Jackets.
“The second half, that whole first drive I felt like I was moving well,” Hopkins said. “The opportunities came to make tackles, so that’s what I did.”
Hopkins’ ability to clog the line was most clearly on display during a crucial fourth down play early in the fourth quarter.
With the Hokies up by only a touchdown, the Jackets elected to go for it with two yards to go. Running back David Sims ran right up the middle, but he quickly found nowhere to go and Georgia Tech turned the ball over.
Defensive end James Gayle and linebacker Jack Tyler actually brought Sims to the ground, but it was Hopkins’ effort on the interior that made the stop possible.
“(Defensive tackle Luther Maddy) and I just really clog the holes up and Jack and Gayle came and kind of got the tackle, but (Maddy) and I were big factors on plugging the holes and stopping it,” Hopkins said. “I was pretty proud of it, we had a third down stop before that, so I was kind of pumped up.”
Hopkins is referring to the previous play on the drive, where he wrapped up Sims for no gain to force the fourth down, another example of his physical dominance.
“He’s got great quickness, lower body strength. He’s hard to get off his feet, he’s a player,” Wiles said.
What makes Hopkins’ dominance relatively surprising is his lack of overwhelming size. Although he weighs in at 311 pounds, he only stands six feet tall.
“I’m a little shorter than everybody else, I’m not 6’5” like some tackles, but I’ve got good leverage,” Hopkins said.
The redshirt senior made expert use of that leverage against the Jackets’ offensive line. Although Hopkins was regularly matched up with Georgia Tech’s 6’3” center, Jay Finch, he was still disruptive all night long.
“When you get a 6’5” O-lineman, I’ve got to have good leverage to get my hands to the side,” Hopkins said.
In addition to his strength, Hopkins has found success by learning how to control his emotions on the field.
“It comes with experience, I just know what kind of attitude I have to go into the game with,” Hopkins said. “I might get a little antsy, but otherwise I’m just cool, calm.”
However, that’s not to say there isn’t a place for emotion on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, he claims it’s just the opposite.
“Emotions are a big part for the whole defense,” Hopkins said. “Good defenses have good emotions, everybody’s excited, everybody’s trying to get amped up, because a quiet defense is a dead defense.”