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March 19, 2013

Tech "D" ready for spring

By: Jimmy Robertson

The Hokies return a lot of starters and hope to carry over their stellar play from the end of last season to this spring

Dadi Nicolas showed flashes of his athletic ability last fall, and the Tech coaching staff wants to see more of it this spring.

After a slow start to the 2012 season, the Virginia Tech defense played great in the second half of the campaign and finished as a top-20 defense nationally (18th in total defense) for the 12th time since Bud Foster took over as the defensive coordinator. Can that unit be as good or better next season? The process starts this spring, and Foster took time to answer a few questions before spring practice begins on March 27.

Q: When you look back at last year, what was the difference between the first half of the season and the second half?

BF: “We just went back and played our field people, meaning we played our whip (linebacker) and didn’t play as much nickel (defense). I felt like the first half of the year we were like we were two years ago. We were a hodgepodge group, and we really weren’t able to run our defense. We weren’t as pressure-oriented as we like to be or can be. Just all those things. I felt like we weren’t functioning like I know we can function, so we made a decision. We were going to play (Alonzo) Tweedy and Ronny Vandyke and run our defense. I wanted to run our pressures the way we ran them the last half of the year, and we didn’t do that the first half of the year.

“So that was an issue, and we had revamped our secondary and that was an issue early on. They played so much better the second half of the season. The biggest area was our tackling (in the secondary). In the Pitt and North Carolina games, we were in great fits, but we missed tackles on the perimeter. I thought the game slowed down for those guys, and they performed better.”

Q: With so many starters coming back, do you anticipate that second-half performance carrying over to this spring?

BF: “Yeah, I’ve got high expectations. I was disappointed in that I thought we had some guys who, because we were a top-10 defense the year before, thought we could show up and do it again. I was disappointed to be honest with you. I thought we could play harder and with more attitude, and we did down the stretch. But as a coach, I was disappointed from that standpoint. For the first time in a long time, we had to challenge their efforts a little bit, and that’s not going to be the case this year. If it is, they’re not going to play. I felt like the kids felt like they were entitled because of their past success, but you’ve got to go out and earn it.”

Q: You lose Michael Cole (neck injury), who gave up football, and Antone Exum is out this spring (torn ACL) and may possibly miss some games. Who are some guys you’re watching in the secondary?

BF: “Let me say this – if anyone can get back, it would be Antone Exum. He’s kind of a freak physically, and he’s motivated. But at the same time, that injury opens the door for some other guys.

“I’m looking to see what Donovan Riley can do. He played last year on special teams, and he’ll know what the expectations are, but he’s got a lot of room to grow. Donaldven Manning, with the way he practiced in the spring, I thought he’d have more impact last fall. He had a disappointing freshman season in my eyes. We’ve also got Davion Tookes. Those are three guys we’re looking at for the field corner spot. Behind (Kyle) Fuller (at boundary corner), you’re looking at Brandon Facyson, who is a true freshman.

“The cupboard is not bare, but this is going to be a big spring for all those secondary guys. We need to develop some depth in our secondary. That’s always been one of our strengths, but we were a little thin last year when it was all said and done.

“Losing Mike hurts. I thought he would have been even better this year. He had the physical tools and make-up to be a good football player. It’s unfortunate for him, but we’ve got some guys who need to step up, and I think they will.”

Q: How important is this spring for Tariq Edwards, who will be replacing last year’s leader, Bruce Taylor?

BF: “The key guy this spring is Tariq Edwards. Obviously, two years ago, he was an all-star candidate and played that way. He had that stress fracture and had that rod inserted in his shin, and he never really recovered physically or mentally. But he’s a guy, if he can step up and get back to the level he played at two years ago … that’s a playmaking spot. I think he’s a key guy.

“The other guy I’m excited about (at backer) is Deon Clarke. He was a little all over the place as a freshman. We tried to play him and then he got nicked up a little bit (and missed the rest of the year), but he has a motor and a lot of potential.

“We’re also going to move Josh Trimble to whip and move Dahman McKinnon to backer, so he can battle at that backer spot. Josh was a guy you saw on special teams making plays in space and doing some of the things that we ask our whips to do. Watching him as opposed to McKinnon making plays in space, I just think he’s a better fit at whip and McKinnon can battle at backer. We’re just trying to put guys in places where we can maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses and help them be more productive.”

Q: J.R. Collins bounced back and forth from end to tackle a little last season. Where do you see him heading into this spring?

BF: “J.R. has been the most pleasant surprise in winter workouts. He would be one of the first ones to tell you that he thought he could show up (last year) and do what he did the year before. I love this kid to death. He was probably overweight last year. I didn’t see the quickness that I did the year before. He was disappointed in his play, and right now, he wants to go back and play defensive end for us. I think there is going to be a tremendous battle at that position between him and Corey Marshall. J.R. wants it. I see a different kid, just in his demeanor, and he can graduate at the end of the semester. He’s changed his life.

“We’re going to look at getting our four best guys on the field. He and Corey have both played in there (at defensive tackle). It could be those two in there, but on the same side at some point. That’s a good problem to have when it’s all said and done.”

Q: For the second straight year, the front four should be a strength. Do you like what you have coming back?

BF: “I do, but again, I want a group that is going to be hungry. I thought that group got a late start last year. Part of that is the offenses we played early in the year (spread offenses), and we did some things with our ends that probably slowed them down. We’ve talked about what we’re looking to do this spring. Those offenses do some things to tie your ends up, but we can do some things. We just need to do them a little quicker.

“But I like our kids. When James Gayle is healthy and playing right, he’s an impact player. Tyrel Wilson is an outstanding player. We just did our cut-ups for last season, and the guy shows up a lot. I think you’ll see big things from J.R., and Corey needs to be a little more consistent.

“After that, you’ve got a group of young guys that I’m really excited about. We’re going to need Dadi Nicolas to step up, and you’ve seen the potential he has. He’s a raw, talented kid. He can close on people and do things, but he’s got to be consistent. Dewayne Alford is a kid that I’m really excited about. Matt Roth helped us on special teams, and I’m anxious to see Ken Ekanem. Jarontay Jones might be a defensive end or a defensive tackle. He showed some things in our (Monday) scrimmages (last fall).

“We’ve got a slew of guys there. We want to keep those returning starters sharp, but we want to get these younger guys better. We want to get a good evaluation to determine their futures.”

Q: Whom among your young defensive tackles do you like?

BF: “Well, first, I really like how Luther Maddy played last year. When he’s healthy, he’s really effective, and I like Derrick Hopkins. Those two are our leaders in there.

“Kris Harley needs to be more consistent. He played last year and was inconsistent. That’s the position up front where we need to create depth because, when we’re good, we’ll rotate guys there. But they’ve got to be able to perform.

“After those guys, it’s wide open. The guy I’ve been impressed with is Nigel Williams He’s explosive and plays with natural pad level. He can chase the ball. I’m anxious to see more of him. I’m also anxious to see Alston Smith and Woody Baron, and Justin Taylor is a kid who has gotten bigger. We’ve moved him inside, and this is a big spring for him.

“After Hopkins and Maddy, we’ve got to find a third, fourth and fifth guy. I’d like to see all of them take that next step.”

Q: You were really impressed with Jack Tyler last year, weren’t you?

BF: “He was probably our most consistent football player. He played hard. I don’t know who does the stats up in the press box, but they probably short-changed him 100 hits. He’s a football player.

“I think there will be a battle between Chase Williams and Devin Vandyke (behind Tyler). Chase has a great football IQ, but needs to play at a higher level and play faster. Devin is an athletic kid. That mike position is a leadership position, and he’ll be that type of guy.”

Q: Will you visit anyone this spring, and do you have any plans to tweak things?

BF: “We visited with Navy, but they primarily wanted to talk to us. Charley (Wiles) and I went up there, and we talked about our pressure package. But I also talked to them about the ‘Bone’, too (Georgia Tech’s offense). They’re reluctant to give us a lot of information because of their ties to (Georgia Tech coach) Paul Johnson, and I understand that. But at the same time, I got a couple of little things.

“We’re actually going to go visit Vanderbilt. Brent Pry, who was our GA here in the mid-1990s, is the co-coordinator down there. They were efficient on third down and run some of the stuff we run on third down. That’s a place we can go and share ideas. I think they’ll be open with us, and I’m curious to see what they’re doing from a recruiting standpoint because they’ve obviously improved themselves. They do some things well in a league where they’re a little overmatched.

“Also, Todd Grantham (former Tech player and coach and current Georgia defensive coordinator) and I have gone back and forth. I’m not looking to change things, but to just tweak a little bit. Maybe a pressure or a technique. People are wanting to pick us more than we pick them. Just finding a place to talk is a big thing now. Not everyone wants to be open about adjustments they do in certain formations, and that’s what you want. But those places we’ve been are usually open for discussions.”