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August 17, 2010

Seniors key to continuing Tech's stellar defensive play

By: Jimmy Robertson

Roughly a week or so after a celebration of his 51st birthday, Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster bid farewell to another laidback summer filled with fishing, wake surfing and ray catching at his home on Claytor Lake, with a side trip to St. Louis to watch his beloved Cardinals mixed in for good measure.

He morphed back into coaching mode, anxious to tackle the questions centering on the latest version of the Virginia Tech defense.

Tech opened practice on August 6 with two tailbacks of Heisman caliber in the backfield, a quarterback with 28 career starts under his belt, three starters returning on the offensive line and all their big, sleek receivers coming back. But on the other side of the ball, with trainer Mike Goforth’s admission that Barquell Rivers would not be ready for the opener, the Hokies return just four starters from a unit that ranked ninth in the nation in scoring defense and 12th in total defense a year ago.

And that’s why head coach Frank Beamer joked at media day that Foster had his work cut out for him.

“This is going to be a big season for us defensively,” Foster admitted. “We’ve got seven players to replace, and those were seven players who were productive players. It wasn’t like there were two or three who were dynamic and the rest just played for us and not the opponent. All these guys were playmakers.”

But Foster isn’t making excuses. He never has, and he fully expects the 2010 version to be just as good as those units of the past.

“It’s not about the guys who were here before,” defensive tackle John Graves said. “It’s about the guys who are here now.”

Foster personally tabbed Graves as the leader of the defense, placing him in charge of the lunch pail. Graves got that honor not just because of his play, though he destroyed Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve, but mostly because of his character.

And therein is what Foster likes most about this unit. Tech’s defense features a bunch of tall, big, strong, fast, and overall, good-looking athletes. But the trait he loves most is their character.

It all starts with the five seniors on Tech’s defense, four of them starters – Graves, rover Davon Morgan, cornerback Rashad Carmichael and defensive end Steven Friday. The remaining senior, Zach Luckett, could be considered a starter, given his prowess as a special teams player.

These five guys appreciate football perhaps a little more than the rest, considering the adversity each has faced throughout their careers. Graves spent most of last season hobbled with an ankle injury. Morgan blew out his ACL against Nebraska two years ago. Luckett did the same against Virginia last season. Carmichael lost his father a couple of years ago, and Friday was shot in the chest back in 2005.

They all stuck around this summer, with full intentions of making their last season their best one. Their presence in Blacksburg made a difference, too, particularly Graves with the young defensive linemen. James Gayle, J.R. Collins and Duan Perez-Means all look bigger and stronger – and more confident – mimicking Graves.

“Our kids have not had a good summer. They’ve had a great summer,” Foster said. “They’ve spent a lot of time watching film and working together on the practice field on their own, and it’s shown. I’m excited about this group. I think we do have a talented group. Now, how quickly we play the way we want to play, we’ll have to see. It’s going to be a work in progress.”

Foster knows all about challenges. In 2003, a talented Tech defense never found any chemistry and suffered down the stretch, giving up 52 points to California in the Insight Bowl in a game unfortunately shown on ESPNU recently. Yet the next season, Tech’s defense led another resurgence, helping the Hokies win the ACC crown.

He lost six starters off his defense after the 2006 season. In 2007, his unit finished No. 1 in the nation in total defense.

We all know Foster loves a challenge. He always brings his “A” game, and the players usually feed off of him.

But he can’t get out there and play. He’ll need those seniors to play and lead in the same manner in which he coaches.

The process certainly won’t be a day at the beach – or at the lake. But the ending could be a lot of fun.