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May 7, 2010

Several young players take advantage of opportunities this spring

By: Jimmy Robertson

The Maroon-White game wrapped up Virginia Tech’s 2010 spring practice, and springtime this year was the time of opportunity, particularly on defense.

Tech’s defense saw standouts such as Nekos Brown, Cordarrow Thompson and NFL draft picks Jason Worilds, Cody Grimm and Kam Chancellor depart. Their departures made spring practice interesting for casual observers of the spring game and the spring scrimmages, as it provided the opportunity to watch a group of lesser known and younger players on the Hokies’ roster.

Given that opportunity, some players will surprise. Here’s one man’s take on who surprised this spring:

Bruce Taylor – Taylor, a mike linebacker with a defensive end’s body, benefited when Barquell Rivers went down with an injury that caused him to miss spring practice. Taylor got more reps with the first-team unit, a group of guys who knew what they were doing. That, in turn, helped elevate Taylor’s play.

Taylor was all over the field. He made a bunch of tackles in the scrimmages and enjoyed a fine spring game (five tackles, 1.5 for loss). He may not be the starter when Rivers returns, but he worked himself into a position to get plenty of reps.

Steven Friday – After the spring game, Friday thanked Worilds for leaving school early and declaring for the NFL Draft. He sounded like a guy thankful for an opportunity.

Let’s face it, it is tough to be in a situation like the one Friday found himself in the past three years – with an all-conference player and future NFL Draft pick in front of you on the depth chart. He knew, like everyone else, that Worilds was not coming out of the game much.

But this spring, Friday, on the pole position at defensive end, showed his skills. He showed speed and he showed strength. Hopefully, his two sacks in the spring game are a harbinger of things to come.

Tony Gregory – We all knew this kid was fast. He came out of the womb running a 4.4. But what about his vision? His toughness? His patience? Would he be willing to accept a 4-yard gain or would he try to make it a 20-yard gain and ultimately lose five?

Gregory possesses a burst, for sure. His acceleration is outstanding, and this spring, he more than showed a willingness to cut up into a hole and take a 4- or 5-yard gain. He also proved to be a workhorse, carrying 46 times combined in scrimmages and the spring game – and he didn’t fumble.

Running backs coach Billy Hite said that Gregory reminds him of Lee Suggs. That’s a good comparison. But Gregory might be faster.

Antone Exum – Aside from Bruce Taylor, the guy around the ball the most this spring was Exum. Before the snap, he struggled somewhat. After the snap, he was very good.

That means that Exum struggled getting the calls right and getting the Hokies lined up in the proper coverages from his free safety spot. But that position, from a mental standpoint, may be the hardest on Tech’s defense. It takes reps.

However, physically, Exum was tremendous. He knocked passes away and came up strong in run support. He may not be savvy enough just yet to knock Eddie Whitley from that starting role, but he’ll be sure to keep Whitley working throughout the summer and into the fall.

Nick Becton – It’s quite hard for the casual observer to gauge offensive linemen, so the pick of Becton goes more on what the coaches say than simple observations. The coaches, though, actually expressed no surprise in Becton’s play. They knew all along that he possessed the skills to handle the critical left tackle position.

Your editor, however, thought for sure that the coaches would flip Blake DeChristopher to the left side because of DeChristopher’s game experience. But Becton’s play negated the need to do that. His long arms and athleticism – he was a standout basketball player in high school – make him an ideal candidate for the job. Not only that, his emergence means that DeChristopher can stay at right tackle, where he’s more comfortable.

There were other surprises, of course. There always are. Logan Thomas certainly deserves mentioning, along with James Gayle and Chase Williams.

The Hokies have a lot of good young players, but how quickly some of them established themselves this spring comes as a bit of a surprise.

Hopefully, Tech fans will be surprised with them in the fall, too