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August 13, 2013

Tech defense looking to be great from the start in 2013

By: Jimmy Robertson

Shortly after the Hokies’ 48-34 defeat to North Carolina last October, defensive coordinator Bud Foster walked into the postgame media session – willingly – to face media hounds who were all ready to tree him after his defense gave up 533 yards of offense and made UNC tailback Giovani Bernard look like Walter Payton.

The loss marked Tech’s third in a four-game stretch, and the Hokies’ defense was sinking like the Titanic, having been gouged by passing attacks from Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and the Tar Heels.

Foster called the UNC performance “pitiful.” He said he needed to get the unit “back to the basics.” He admitted he was playing too much nickel defense – with five defensive backs – and wanted to reinsert his whip linebacker to make opposing offenses adjust to the things that he liked to do.

That game changed the Hokies’ 2012 season, at least defensively. Tech played great defense the final seven games of the season and finished in the top 20 nationally in total defense for the 12th time in Foster’s tenure.

Now, as the Hokies get ready to kick off the 2013 season, the question begs to be asked – can Tech’s defense play from the beginning the way it played toward the end of last year?

That’s arguably the most important question facing this year’s team.

The defense needs to be great, not just good and certainly not average, from the beginning because Tech’s offense is going to need some time to jell. Outside of quarterback Logan Thomas, the Hokies simply lack proven playmakers at the skill spots, and questions linger about the line. Expecting that unit to gallop up and down the field from the opening kick seems a bit much. However, a defense that forces a bunch of turnovers and puts the offense in great position would be extremely helpful toward any future Hokie successes.

Or in other words, simply do what they did at the end of last season – and not at the beginning.

“I think the mistake we made last year was that we thought we were going to be good just because we played well the year before [Tech was 10th nationally in total defense in 2011],” Tech defensive end James Gayle said. “I don’t have any expectations for the defense this year other than to go out and play as hard as we can. I think the rest will handle itself.

“I don’t have any worries. I know we have a solid unit. If we could just play these next 14 games like we played the last six of last year, we’ll be in good shape.”

There is every reason to think Tech will do that. Unlike a year ago when the Hokies juggled a bunch of guys in the secondary – the biggest issue of their early-season issues – they are set at every spot heading into this season. Tech returns nine starters on that side of the ball, though losing Bruce Taylor’s leadership and Alonzo Tweedy’s playmaking stings a bit. But Tariq Edwards appears ready to return to the form of his sophomore year after being bogged down with a leg injury last year, and Ronny Vandyke seems to be perfect to slide into Tweedy’s role.

The Hokies possess some depth on defense, too, particularly at the defensive end spots and in the secondary. Yes, they need tackles to step forward, but an end [J.R. Collins, Corey Marshall?] could slide down. And of course, Foster ranks as one of the best defensive coordinators in the nation, year in and year out.

Maybe more importantly, this unit is motivated. The group’s statistics turned out fairly well last season (top 20 in several categories), but the numbers that matter to these players are 7 and 6 – the Hokies’ record.

“We underachieved greatly last year, so there isn’t any complacency,” said cornerback Antone Exum, whose torn ACL suffered last January will keep him out until at least the Georgia Tech game. “From a defensive perspective, we played very well at the end of the year, but we struggled at the beginning. As a team, that was a disappointing season. We fell short of a lot of expectations. There shouldn’t be any complacency, and there isn’t any complacency in the program.”

Tech’s staff has won with defense many times. The coaches know this formula well, and it works. To win in 2013, Tech’s defense needs to continue its tradition of excellence, while the offense gradually builds its own.

Foster loves that type of challenge. Always has. Rest assured, he’ll be revved up when the season starts. Hopefully his defense follows suit.