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August 21, 2012

Gayle, Collins anchor what should be a loaded defensive line

By: Jimmy Robertson

During a short interview in July, James Gayle made the observation that the Hokies faced a difficult schedule this upcoming season, one of the toughest schedules in the ACC.

When asked if he was one who analyzed the schedules when they came out, he stated “no.”

“I just saw it on Twitter,” Gayle said. “That’s where everyone gets their information these days, whether it’s the truth or not.”

Joking aside, the Hokies do face a tough schedule, in that several opponents get off weeks before playing Tech. But those teams may need that added week of rest before taking on what appears to be a rather stout Tech defensive line.

Led by Gayle, the Hokies return all four starters on the defensive line. Thanks to last year’s injuries that forced the staff to play a lot of younger players, Tech returns three other defensive linemen with at least one career start. In short, this group goes two deep at every position, and many of the players possess enough versatility to rotate at any of four spots.

Looking for a breakout candidate? Try all of them, according to Gayle.

“I don’t think anyone is going to have a breakout season because all of our defensive linemen are pretty good,” Gayle said. “Even our backups are good. It’s like we have two sets of starters. So I feel like everyone is going to have a breakout year.”

Tech’s defense played pretty well last year, finishing second in the ACC in total defense (304.6 ypg) and rushing defense (104.1 ypg) despite the rash of injuries on that side of the ball. The injury bug bit two defensive linemen – Kwamaine Battle and Antoine Hopkins – costing them the season, and Gayle himself missed a game with an ankle injury.

But minus Battle, the defensive line returns intact. The starters will be led by ends Gayle, and J.R. Collins, along with tackles Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy, who figures to be challenged by Antoine Hopkins. Gayle led Tech with seven sacks, while Collins added six and led all defensive linemen last season with 57 tackles.

Tyrel Wilson, a valuable reserve who played great last year, returns, along with Corey Marshall, a top recruit who played last season as a true freshman, and Zack McCray, who has gotten bigger and stronger and will rotate between tackle and end. Marshall and Justin Taylor may do the same.

Gayle and Collins certainly headline the group. Gayle, who earned second-team All-ACC honors a year ago after recording 38 tackles, including 12.5 for a loss, to go with the seven sacks, nearly won the Excalibur Award, the top honor in the strength and conditioning program. But a balky quad forced him to sit out one of the required events and prevented him from winning it. Still, he’s bulked up to nearly 270 pounds without losing any speed.

“My expectations are to play better than I played last year,” he said. “I want to stay healthy. I’m going to stay healthy. I feel like I’ve become a more complete player in the past year. The position as a whole has been new to me. I didn’t start learning the little things that could help me until last year. Now, I’ve gotten stronger, bigger, faster, and I know the game more.”

That same thing could be said for all of Tech’s defensive linemen. For that reason, many rank the unit as one of the best in the nation. Gayle is cautious about such accolades, but doesn’t disagree.

“I’m pretty excited,” Gayle said. “Everyone knows that a lot of guys got hurt last year, and I doubt that’s going to happen again this year. I feel like we’re going to be one of the most dominant defenses in the nation. That’s just my opinion. We’ve got to wait and see what happens.”


Stud ends

99 James Gayle (6-4, 269, r-Jr.)
66 Tyrel Wilson (6-1, 228, r-Jr.)
87 Dewayne Alford (6-2, 247, Fr.)


42 J.R. Collins (6-2, 261, r-Jr.)
95 Zack McCray (6-5, 256, r-Soph.)
96 Corey Marshall (6-1, 267, Soph.)

91 Matt Roth (6-2, 241, r-Fr.)

Nose tackles

98 Derrick Hopkins (6-0, 306, Jr.)
97 Kris Harley (6-1, 282, r-Fr.)

93 Justin Taylor (6-2, 246, r-Fr.)


92 Luther Maddy (6-1, 288, Soph.)

56 Antoine Hopkins (6-1, 313, r-Sr.)


Returning starters: James Gayle (15 career starts), J.R. Collins (15), Derrick Hopkins (14), Luther Maddy (7)

Starters lost: none

Projected new starters: none

Top reserves: Antoine Hopkins (17 career starts), Tyrel Wilson (2), Zack McCray, Corey Marshall (1)

Newcomers: Kris Harley, Justin Taylor, Matt Roth

Breakout candidate: Maddy

Notes: Tech’s returning defensive linemen combined for 22.5 sacks and 36.5 tackles for a loss last season … Gayle ranked tied for fourth in the ACC with seven sacks, while Collins was tied for sixth with six … Gayle’s 12.5 tackles for a loss ranked 11th in the ACC … Dadi Nicolas has been suspended indefinitely from the team following an off-the-field incident … In addition to Kwamaine Battle, the only defensive linemen not returning from last season are Isaiah Hamlette and Duan Perez-Means (moved to tight end).