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August 15, 2011

Gayle hoping big offseason and spring practice carries over into this fall

By: Jimmy Robertson

With the exception of a couple of weeks once the spring semester ended, James Gayle was in Blacksburg the entire summer, working out and taking classes.

“Sometimes, I feel I need a break from school, but not with football,” he said, with a smile. “I love lifting weights.

“This [playing football] is what I’ve always wanted to do. So I figured I might as well be up here working on my craft.”

James Gayle

A redshirt freshman a year ago, Gayle gained some experience last fall as a reserve at one of the defensive end spots. He thrived in the strength and conditioning program, winning the Excalibur Award – the top honor in the program – over the winter, which came as a surprise to him. At 251 pounds then, he recorded a 420-pound bench press and a 38-inch vertical jump, and then he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds.

“It [the Excalibur Award] surprised me,” he said. “I knew I was going to get it sooner or later. I just didn’t know it would be this soon. I didn’t expect my numbers to jump that high, that fast.”

All that helped him dominate on the field this past spring, with six sacks combined in Tech’s scrimmages and in the Maroon-White game. He earned the team’s most valuable defensive player award following spring practice.

Tech’s defensive coaching staff hopes this progression continues this fall, as Gayle headlines a defensive line that lost three starters from a year ago, including Chris Drager, who was moved to tight end. The coaches need for Gayle to make plays and be a force along a defensive front partly responsible for giving up 4.7 yards per carry a year ago – the worst yards per carry number in defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s tenure.

“I feel we’re going to play a lot more consistently,” Gayle said. “We had a lot of young guys last year. Myself, I know I made a lot of mistakes that gave up yards. That was from not knowing the game plan mentally and not following through. But I feel, this year, we’re going to be a whole lot better. You can tell just from watching the spring.

“Everyone talks about how we’re going to be much better on defense. I don’t see us giving up five yards a carry – at all.”

Tech’s starting defensive line should form a much more formidable wall this season. J.R. Collins, who, like Gayle, enjoyed a superb spring, lines up opposite Gayle at the other end spot, while the Hopkins brothers man the two tackle spots. Derrick Hopkins, who played as a true freshman last season, was unblockable this past spring, and Antoine, the older of the two, was a starter a year ago, recording 45 tackles, including 6.5 for a loss and 2.5 sacks. He possesses a ton of ability. Those four provide a solid nucleus.

The question concerning Tech’s defensive line will be depth, as only Kwamaine Battle possesses any significant experience. Even Battle comes as a bit of a question mark because he tore his ACL in the James Madison game last season and missed the rest of the year. He practiced this spring, and Tech’s coaches hope he provides some playmaking ability as a reserve.

Most of the backups are either young or inexperienced, or both. Tyrel Wilson, a redshirt sophomore, and Duan Perez-Means, a redshirt freshman, back up the end positions. Perez-Means flashed a lot of ability this spring, and the coaches remain high on his future. At the tackle spots, Dwight Tucker and Isaiah Hamlette serve as reserves.

That makes it imperative that Gayle and the rest of the starters enjoy huge years. He showed big-time potential in brief playing time last season, recording four sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss.

“To be honest, last year, what held me back was knowing the plays,” Gayle said. “Now that I know the plays, things are much easier. Everything comes fluidly. When you’re lining up and you have Coach Foster calling the plays as you’re lining up – and you don’t really know the plays anyway – it makes it harder. But now, I know everything.

“I’m very excited. I felt like I’ve been learning the past two years. Last year, I had minimal playing time, but this year, I think I’m going to play a lot more. I’m going to have fun.”

42 J.R. Collins (6-2, 240, r-Soph.)
66 Tyrel Wilson (6-1, 219, r-Soph.)
95 Zack McCray (6-5, 254, r-Fr.)
87 Justin Taylor (6-2, 230, Fr.)

99 James Gayle (6-4, 257, r-Soph.)
90 Duan Perez-Means (6-4, 248, r-Fr.)

56 Antoine Hopkins (6-1, 306, r-Jr.)
55 Isaiah Hamlette (6-5, 291, r-Jr.)

Nose tackles
98 Derrick Hopkins (6-0, 301, Soph.)
93 Kwamaine Battle (6-1, 302, r-Sr.)
53 Dwight Tucker (6-1, 280, r-Jr.)


Returning starter: Antoine Hopkins (12 career starts)

Starters lost: John Graves (36 career starts), Steven Friday (14), Chris Drager (moved to tight end)

Projected new starters: James Gayle, J.R. Collins, Derrick Hopkins

Top reserves: Kwamaine Battle, Duan Perez-Means, Dwight Tucker

Newcomers: Perez-Means, Zack McCray

Breakout candidate: Gayle

Notes: Graves, Friday and Drager combined for 233 tackles, 44.5 tackles for a loss and 19 sacks in their careers … In contrast, Gayle, Collins and Derrick Hopkins have combined to start in three games … Collins and Gayle combined for nine sacks and 13 tackles for a loss last season … Derrick Hopkins played in 13 games as a true freshman.