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May 8, 2014

First-team defensive line solid, but Hokies need for depth to emerge

By: Jimmy Robertson

Outside of the quarterback position, no group of players received more scrutiny this season than Tech’s defensive linemen, as line coach Charley Wiles began the process of finding replacements for James Gayle, J.R. Collins, Derrick Hopkins and Tyrel Wilson.

Coming out of spring practice, Wiles felt good about a first unit that included ends Ken Ekanem and Dadi Nicolas and tackles Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall. But he admitted the Hokies lacked depth up front.

“What we’ve got to get out of that second group, really, is more production,” Wiles said. “You see a lot of drop-off from the first group to the second group in terms of playmaking. That’s my message to my guys. We need to make more plays. Don’t be just a guy holding up in your gap. We’ve got to make more tackles and affect the game more. We’re close, but there’s still a drop-off there.”

Wiles’ first team enjoyed a good spring practice, particularly the inside tandem of Maddy and Marshall. In Maddy, the Hokies get an All-ACC player (third team), but the key to the front may be the play of Marshall, who took time away from the program for a brief period last year to deal with personal issues and later ended up taking a redshirt year after head coach Frank Beamer let him return to the team.

Marshall, who was named the most valuable performer on defense this spring, played the role of disruptor on the field, creating havoc inside and easing the concerns of losing Hopkins, a productive player who worked well with Maddy. Marshall will stay at tackle. In fact, Wiles did not give Marshall a single rep at defensive end, where he played for most of his first two years.

“The best thing for our football team has been Corey’s attitude and approach,” Wiles said. “He’s been very team-oriented, and he really adds a lot of playmaking ability inside. He’s seeing that on video right now just how productive he is at defensive tackle. He’s very explosive.”

Explosive also describes the play of both Nicolas and Ekanem, particularly Nicolas, who played more than 300 snaps as a backup a year ago. He gives the Hokies a legitimate pass rushing threat off the edge and will assume the role vacated by Gayle. Ekanem moves into the role vacated by Collins.

“Dadi just has freakish ability,” Wiles said. “He’s as tough physically and mentally as any player I’ve coached. He plays the game with a lot of passion and plays hard. Hopefully, he can continue to get bigger. Who knows what he weighs? If he’s 225, he plays more like a 250-pound kid. If we could get him consistently to be 240 pounds, that would be outstanding. But he had a heckuva spring.

“There was a lot of talk about Ken this spring, and he really stepped up. Can he sustain that energy and level of play for 13 or 14 football games and be productive? I’m optimistic. I was pleased with how physical he was and his approach.”

The backups right now consist of ends Seth Dooley and Dewayne Alford and tackles Nigel Williams, Wade Hansen and freshman Vinny Mihota, who enrolled this past January.

Dooley and Alford generated a lot of buzz because they look the part. Both weigh more than 245 pounds, and both are long – with long arms. Their weight room numbers were similar. Alford possesses a little more strength, while Dooley gets the nod in athleticism – he ran a 4.58 in the 40-yard dash in testing and recorded a 35.5-inch vertical jump in testing.

On the field this spring, Alford was a little more consistent – and he should be. He is a year older than Dooley and played all 13 games last season, mostly on special teams.

“Dewayne quietly had a good spring,” Wiles said. “He’s been physical and given good effort. He’s been coachable. I like working with him, and I think he’s got some ability. He’s big enough, but I want him to get stronger. That plays a big factor in being able to execute and do the things we want to do.

“Seth was inconsistent. He didn’t play as hard as he needed to play, or has hard as the game demands to have success. Now, toward the end, he played faster on a more consistent basis, and that’s what we’re trying to get. He’s got a lot of ability. He’s a 6-5, 248-pound kid who runs a 4.6, but we only got a portion of that. We’re not getting all of that. When we get all of it, we’re going to get a really good player.”

Like Alford, Williams played in all 13 games last season, and he recorded two sacks. He got off to a bit of a slow start this spring, but he finished strong and possesses the ability to be a “third” starter.

Hansen transferred from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a Division III school in New Jersey, last year and sat out last fall. This spring, a thumb injury hampered him, but he showed potential. Toward the end of spring, Mihota worked some with the second unit. Wiles thinks the 250-pound Mihota fits in better as a tackle.

“He’s tough and can run for a defensive tackle,” Wiles said. “I think we’ve got him in the best spot. Whether he redshirts or not depends on whether he has a big summer. He needs to get bigger, stronger and faster. I think he’s a heckuva prospect. He’s a rugged guy, and he’s athletic for a guy inside. He’s not as athletic at end, but I liked his progress.”

Keep in mind that Wiles did not have the services of Woody Baron this spring. Baron played last season as a true freshman, but underwent surgery on his foot and missed spring practice. He would give Wiles another option at defensive tackle.

Tech will be lighter up front this upcoming season than in years past. A year ago, Gayle weighed 30 pounds more than Nicolas’ current weight, and Hopkins weighed nearly 40 pounds more than Marshall’s current weight. But Wiles isn’t too concerned about being pushed around up front.

“Most of the time, people are spreading it around and throwing it around and running screens,” Wiles said. “I like being able to run, I know that. It hasn’t been an issue. If you go up against somebody who was going to run it down your throat, then it might become an issue.

“Right now, I like being athletic and on our feet and not on the ground. I like being able to rush the passer and chase the ball. We’ve got 11 guys out there who are playmakers and not a bunch of space eaters. I like having those athletes out there.”

2014 SPRING DEPTH CHART (as of April 22)


4 Ken Ekanem (6-3, 245, r-So.)

43 Seth Dooley (6-5, 248, r-Fr.)

42 Laird Gardner (6-1, 227, Jr.)

Stud ends

90 Dadi Nicolas (6-3, 218, r-Jr.)

87 Dewayne Alford (6-2, 243, r-So.)

93 Jeremy Haynes (6-3, 222, r-So.)

Nose tackles

96 Corey Marshall (6-1, 257, r-Jr.)

77 Wade Hansen (6-6, 291, r-Jr.)

99 Vinny Mihota (6-5, 249, Fr.)


92 Luther Maddy (6-1, 291, Sr.)

95 Nigel Williams (6-2, 289, r-So.)