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.”
According to the tackle, the key is having “a good blend” of players that quietly lead by example and those who are more vocal.
“We have some people that are really rowdy, some people who are calm, cool,” Hopkins said. “Antone (Exum), Gayle, Kyle (Fuller)’s starting to get a little rowdy. (Detrick) Bonner, Kyshoen (Jarrett), those guys. It’s really about half. (Maddy) and I, Jack (Tyler), we’re in the zone, but we’re not real loud like that.”
A quiet demeanor isn’t the only thing that Hopkins and Maddy share. The defensive tackles have become like family thanks to their time on the line together.
“I’ve learned a lot from Derrick, he teaches me, he gives me some corrections because we’re somewhat similar in the way we play,” Maddy said. “He brings all the heat, he encourages me to compete every week and we make each other better. He’s a great, great guy.”
Hopkins insists that forming that kind of camaraderie on the defensive line is essential for the unit to play together effectively.
“You’ve got to have a relationship with the guy next to you, you have to have unity,” Hopkins said.
But while the unit as a whole played well last Thursday, it was Hopkins that truly stood out. With a big performance in a nationally televised game, NFL scouts surely took notice of Hopkins, but he’s not thinking about the next level quite yet.
“Not yet,” Hopkins said. “People are talking about it, but I’m trying to finish the year out strong, it’s my last year. My family and my chaplain are always talking about leaving a legacy, so I’m trying to leave a positive legacy when I leave.”
In the meantime, he’s devoting his energy toward facing North Carolina this Saturday.
The Tar Heels thrashed the Hokies 48-34 last year, and the memory still stings for Hopkins.
“We got pounded,” Hopkins said. “(Former running back Giovani) Bernard just ran the ball on us. It’s extra motivation, we’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing and working hard and trying to play consistently.”
The Heels were indeed particularly effective on the ground — the team ran for a total of 339 yards, with 267 coming from Bernard alone.
That’s a result Hopkins just isn’t used to.
“That was the first time somebody ran for more than 300 yards, for me at least,” Hopkins said. “It’s extra motivation a little bit, but we’re going to continue doing what we’ve been doing this year and improve on that to keep getting better.”
Yet, true to form, Hopkins doesn’t let last year’s result affect him too much. Instead, he just approaches it the same way he always does: with a level head.
“I could (take it personally), but I’m just trying to stay calm,” Hopkins said. “You could get mad and try to do too much and things like that, so I try to stay leveled off and go about it the right way.”