Spring Football 2001: The Defensive Line
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 6/27/01

Note: upon conclusion of our series of pre-Spring-Game articles covering the Virginia Tech offense, we promised to recap the defense, as well. This article is the first in a series to deliver on that promise.

In 1995 and 1999, the Virginia Tech Hokies fielded the two best defenses in the Frank Beamer coaching era. Those defenses were characterized by deep, relentless defensive lines that made life miserable for their opponents.

The storied defensive lines of '95 and '99 had two characteristics: (1) they were two deep at every position, and even wholesale substitutions produced little dropoff in performance; and (2) they featured All-American defensive ends in Cornell Brown and Corey Moore.

The lines of '95 and '99 also shared another characteristic: they sacked opposing quarterbacks frequently. The 1995 line, led by Cornell Brown's 14 sacks, dropped opposing QB's 48 times. After registering 46, 35, and 48 sacks over the next three years, the 1999 Hokies rung up an incredible 58 sacks, led by Corey Moore's 17.

Year

1995

1996

1997

1998

1999

2000

Total Sacks

48

46

35

48

58

28

Sacks by DL

34

32

26.5

34.5

40

19

But as the table shows, during the 2000 season, while the Hokies broke in a new defensive line, the team's sack total fell to an abysmal 28, even worse than the 35 sacks of 1997 (also known as a punchless year for the defensive line). Only 19 of the 28 sacks in 2000 were registered by the defensive linemen, a total that Corey Moore nearly matched by himself the year before. Nathaniel Adibi and David Pugh led the team with 5 sacks apiece in 2000, the lowest total for a sack leader since at least 1994 (TSL reference materials only go back to 1995).

Such aberrations are one-year phenomena in Hokie football, however, and fans are expecting to see more pressure on the QB from the 2001 Hokie defensive line. A successful Virginia Tech defense depends on pressure from the defensive line making life easier for the linebackers and defensive backs, particularly the Tech cornerbacks, who are isolated in one-on-one coverage.

The 2001 Virginia Tech defensive line will go two-deep at every position, but for them to meet the high standards set by previous Hokie defensive lines, they must produce at least one superstar pass rusher and get their sack total well above 40. A sack total of 40 or more is within the grasp of the 2001 defense. It is uncertain, however, who the next superstar pass rusher will be.

This article will delve into practice reports, depth charts, and notes from the Hokies' 2001 spring football practices and spring game to try and give you a clue as to where the defensive line is headed for the 2001 season. On the surface, it appeared that there was very little player movement along the defensive line during the course of spring football practice this year. Aside from injuries that sidelined Chad Beasley and David Pugh, there were very few changes on the DL depth chart. No one overtook anyone else, and almost no one changed positions.

But once you dig beneath the depth chart and start analyzing the coaches' comments, practice reports, and player awards, you come to realize that there was a lot going on. Most importantly, the defensive linemen continued to improve both individually and as a unit, and they worked to put themselves in a position to rival the great defensive lines of 1995 and 1999.

Here is a look at the defensive line, position-by-position. Height and weight figures are from Gentry's Iron Palace on BeamerBall.com, and the class given for a player is the class they will be during the 2001 football season.

The Depth Chart

The latest depth chart on BeamerBall.com is dated 5-15-01 and gives the following information for the defensive line.

Position

Stud (End)

Nose (Tackle)

Tackle

End

1st String

Lamar Cobb
(6-1.5, 226, r-Jr.)

David Pugh
(6-1.5, 271, r-Sr.)

Chad Beasley
(6-5, 292, r-Sr.)

Nathaniel Adibi
(6-3.5, 253, r-So.)

2nd String

Cols Colas
(5-11.5, 240, r-So.)

Channing Reed
(6-1.5, 311, Sr.)
Dan Wilkinson
(5-11.5, 258, r-Sr.)

Kevin Lewis
(6-1, 281, So.)

Jim Davis
(6-3.5, 251, So.)

Others

Jason Lallis
(6-0, 244, r-Fr.)

 

Mark Costen
(6-3, 251, r-So.)

Jeff Thompson
(6-4, 245, r-So.)

This depth chart looks exactly like last year's depth chart, with one exception: since February, Wilkinson has been moved from Tackle to Nose. Other than that, the 2001 Virginia Tech DL bears a strong resemblance to the 2000 Virginia Tech DL.

But they're bigger, stronger, and they know the system better, and that spells trouble for Virginia Tech opponents. If this defensive line can stay healthy -- and nagging injuries have plagued the defensive tackles in particular for the last few years -- their performance will lead to a Virginia Tech defense that will be more fearsome than last year's unit, which finished 2nd in the Big East and 27th in the nation in total defense, giving up 323.6 yards per game.

Stud (End)

The Stud position is the defensive end position made famous by Cornell Brown and Corey Moore. The Stud end has one standing order: rush the quarterback, and Brown and Moore did it better than any Hokie other than Bruce Smith. As such, incumbent starter Lamar Cobb (#28) has huge shoes to fill.

Cobb had just one sack during the regular season last year, and his run defense is superior to his rushing ability at this point in his career. He is not an overpowering speed rusher like Moore or Brown, though he did start to get more pressure on the QB by year's end. It's unknown if Cobb will ever be of Moore's or Brown's caliber -- the 2001 season will be a good indicator.

This past spring, Cobb was threatened by Cols Colas (more on Colas later), but Cobb kept his starting spot. Defensive line coach Charley Wiles commended him for his improvement on his technique and fundamentals, and Cobb told BeamerBall.com, "When I have my technique down, I'm a hard guy to block." He said that he was becoming more comfortable in the system, but that ideally, he would like to add another ten pounds and play near 240. For a guy who came in at 200 pounds as a freshman and now weighs 226, that's a lofty goal, but Cobb added, "I think that would make me more of a force."

In post-spring game comments to BeamerBall.com, defensive coordinator Bud Foster singled Cobb out. Foster said, "I'll tell you who I'm happy with. Up front, Lamar Cobb had a great spring." He went on to commend Adibi, Davis, and Colas, but Cobb's name was the first one out of his mouth. Hopefully, Cobb will take a significant step up this fall, because Virginia Tech has gotten used to great production from the Stud end spot. They don't call it "stud" for nothing.

Behind Cobb, Cols Colas (#99) made great strides as well. Statistically, Colas was the weakest performer among Tech's defensive ends in 2000, with just 20 tackles and no sacks. He started out the season playing as much as the other defensive ends, but as the year wore on, his time on the field decreased, and Colas wound up playing just 168 snaps from scrimmage (Cobb, Adibi, and Davis logged 447, 455, and 273 plays, respectively).

But this spring, Colas, who was primarily a fullback in high school, started to put it together. He drew Coach Beamer's praise early in the spring, when Beamer said on BeamerBall.com, "I'd like to mention one player that really stood out during middle drills, and that is defensive end Cols Colas. For a while there, I thought I was seeing Corey Moore again coming off that end. Colas really had an outstanding practice, and is developing into an excellent football player."

Nothing like comparisons to Corey Moore to get Tech fans excited. Just three weeks later, in an "Inside the Numbers" article in the TSL Extra, Colas logged the top "power rating," a rating that ranks players based on height, weight, and 40 time. Colas finished on top at 5-11.5, 240 pounds, with a 4.41 forty.

So Colas has the potential and the physical tools. Bud Foster said at the end of spring practice, "Cols Colas has really improved. You compare him to where he is now and where he was last season at this time, it's like night and day."

But despite his improvement, and the buzz surrounding his spring performance and potential, Colas did not unseat Lamar Cobb, and he also didn't even earn the Most Improved Player award for the defense (that award was shared by Channing Reed and Kevin Lewis).

The key for Colas is consistency. While he earned praise at various times throughout the spring, the most telling comments made about him came from Charley Wiles with about two weeks left in practice. Wiles was giving a rundown of the defensive line, and he told BeamerBall.com, "Cols Colas is another defensive end that is showing flashes of great stuff, but I want to see more consistency. He's getting it done right a little more than half the time now, and that's up from around a quarter of the time, or 30% of the time, last year."

End

Nathaniel Adibi (#83) and Jim Davis (#95) presented a problem for the Tech coaching staff last year. Namely, by the end of the year, they were Tech's two best pass-rushers, and sack production was needed badly but they play the same position. So the coaches dabbled a little with having Adibi and Davis on the field at the same time, and it generally worked well.

In the Tech defensive scheme, the Stud ends like Corey Moore and Lamar Cobb are undersized, but the Ends (like Adibi and Davis) are taller and larger, more prototypical size for a college defensive end. Speaking of prototypes, John Engelberger was the model for a Tech player at the End position at 6-4, 270. Adibi and Davis are both tall like Engelberger at 6-3.5. They're not as big, with the two of them running around 250, but they definitely fit the position.

Adibi has been anointed as the next great Virginia Tech defensive end (if so, it will be the first time an End has received top billing over a Stud end), and his redshirt freshman season held promise. He was tenth on the team in tackles last year with 45 and tied for the team lead in sacks with 5. At times, he made some brilliant plays, and at times, he was pushed around. During spring practice, he was commended several times by the coaches, and overall, he did what he was supposed to do: he improved and got stronger.

Jim Davis was a pleasant surprise last season. After prepping at Fork Union for a year, Davis came in and was ready to play as a true freshman. He got better and better as the year went on, and in the Gator Bowl, he destroyed Clemson's offensive line for two straight sacks. By the end of the season, Davis was the best combination of run-stopping and pass rushing on Tech's defensive line.

In an interview this past spring with the TSL Extra, Corey Moore said of Davis, "He (Davis) reminded me of watching Cornell Brown play, and he's got that Courtney Brown (former defensive lineman at Penn State) build to him. I was down at the Gator Bowl and watched this kid play, and he took over when he was in the game, in my opinion."

For Davis, like Colas, the key is consistency. Charley Wiles told BeamerBall.com, "Jim Davis can take a game over, but I'm still working with him to play hard on every play." Davis had a quiet spring, but at the end of it, Bud Foster said, "Jim Davis continued to get better."

Nose (Tackle)

David Pugh is the best pass-rushing defensive tackle the Hokies have had since J.C. Price. Former DT's Carl Bradley and Nathaniel Williams, who played in the years between Price and Pugh, were good run-stoppers who could clog up the middle, but neither one of them could get into the backfield and disrupt the passing game like Price did and like Pugh can.

Pugh bowed out early in spring practice with a minor non-football-related knee injury, which gave his backups, Channing Reed and Dan Wilkinson, a chance to shine. And shine they did, with Reed being named co-winner of the Dr. Richard Bullock Most Improved Player award. Reed, a true senior transfer from Montgomery Junior College in Maryland who is known for his distinctive dreadlocks, is a hulk of a tackle who looks overweight at 6-1.5, 311 pounds, but who appears to be productive at that weight (as an interesting aside, in his recruiting profile in the 2000 football media guide, Reed was listed as 6-3, 285. It appears someone hit him over the head with a large hammer and fed him too much food between the time he signed with Tech and the time he enrolled).

Reed had an adequate junior season, doing about as well as can be expected for a transfer who was pressed into immediate service. He played 174 snaps, had 20 tackles, and one sack. His most improved player award is a sure sign that he made great strides in the spring, and his improvement led to Coach Wiles lamenting, "It's a real shame we didn't have Channing for four years, because he's really going to be something else this year."

Wilkinson's numbers were very similar to Reed's: 181 plays, 23 tackles, and 2.5 sacks. He had a quiet spring, and this coming season will be the last for the redshirt senior who has stayed with the program despite receiving little playing time before last year, and despite being stuck in a logjam at the Nose position.

Tackle

Whereas David Pugh is a pass-rushing tackle, Chad Beasley is a play-making tackle. He has not one but two interceptions in his career (Boston College '98 and ECU 2000), and last year, he added a fumble recovery and a remarkable 5 "passes defensed" (primarily knockdowns) to his 58 tackles.

Beasley was sidelined for the entire spring by an injury, giving Kevin Lewis and walk-on Mark Costen a chance to get in some repetitions and some work. Like Channing Reed, Lewis took advantage of his opportunity and shared the Most Improved Player Award with Reed. Lewis is a member of the 1999 recruiting class who delayed his entry to Tech until January of 2000 and played as a true freshman last year (125 plays, 15 tackles, including 3 for loss).

Lewis, whose biceps stand out as perhaps the biggest on the team, continues to grow by leaps and bounds. When he was recruited as a defensive tackle, some concern was expressed, because he only weighed 248 in high school. But he enrolled at Tech at 267 pounds, and by spring of 2001, he was up to 280 pounds. He ranks near the top of all of the weightlifting categories among the defensive tackles, and he will be just a true sophomore next year.

The Hokies are rich at the defensive tackle position this season, with five players who will all play more than 100 snaps (barring injury): Pugh, Beasley, Reed, Wilkinson, and Lewis. But looking down the road, Lewis is the only non-senior. As such, watch him closely this coming year, because he'll be counted on heavily in 2002.

          

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