At the halfway point in the 2013 season, there’s no question that the play of Virginia Tech’s stellar defense has been crucial to its 5-1 record and first appearance in the AP Top 25 in over a year.
While the Hokies have had outstanding linebacker play and impressive performances in the defensive backfield, at the heart of Bud Foster’s unit is a tough, seasoned defensive line.
“The big thing is they’ve been here,” said Charley Wiles, defensive line coach. “Tyrel (Wilson) is a fifth-year senior, James (Gayle) is a fifth-year senior, J.R. (Collins) is a fifth year senior, Derrick (Hopkins) is a regular senior, so that’s got a lot to do with it.
“It’s just being in the program and getting a lot of reps under their belt. They’re good kids, they’ve worked extremely hard to get to this position, so I was hoping and I thought that we could have a special group if we could stay healthy, and they’re buying into everything.”
Special is a good way to describe Tech’s defensive line. Six games into 2013, the team is tied for first in the nation with 19 sacks and 50 tackles for loss.
“I feel like we’re disrespected, actually,” said defensive tackle Luther Maddy. “I feel like we’re top-five and we don’t get enough recognition. We’re a good defense but no one really gives us props for it.
“They’re talking bad about us, stuff like that. We all play like that, play hard every snap, real competitive. We count on each other, we’re brothers.”
That brotherhood has helped the defensive line anchor a defense that ranks fifth in the nation in total defense, having given up just under 264 yards per game.
And despite the disrespect they may be feeling, they’re not letting it get in the way of their preparation.
“It’s extra motivation a little bit,” Hopkins said. “But we’re going to continue doing what we’ve been doing this year and improve on that to keep getting better.”
That attitude no doubt comes from that of their coach.
“The approach is the same week-to-week,” Wiles said. “Work hard, pay attention to detail. We’ve got to have good preparation.”
The team will face a 3-1 Pittsburgh squad that takes pride in its physicality and ability to protect pro-style quarterback Tom Savage. The Panthers' style of offense is much different than that of North Carolina’s run and gun with Marquise Williams behind center.
“You certainly want to keep him in the pocket, but they’re a different team, it’s a different quarterback,” Wiles said. “We’re going to be attacking it different, a different mindset in terms of that.
“There aren’t going to be any gun runs and reading people, they’re going to be blocking people, that’s what they do. They get a hat for a hat, and in some instances they’ve got one more than you’ve got, and that’s the way they play ball — they’ve got good physical players, they do a good job.”
Wiles said his unit will try to emulate in-state rival Virginia, who held Pittsburgh to just 14 points on Sept. 28.
“Play hard and play fast,” he said. “That’s what (Virginia) did. They didn’t really do anything out of the ordinary, other than they showed a lot of quickness and they were physical. The two tackles either matched or were more physical than Pitt. The inside kids did a tremendous job.”