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Will the Hokie Defense Return to the Top Ten?
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, TSLMail #442 July 23, 2010

A very good question was asked on the message boards Wednesday: Will Virginia Tech's defense be better this year than it was last year?

"Better" depends upon what metric you use to measure it. Total defense and scoring defense are the top two metrics, of course. The Hokies finished 12th in total defense last season and ninth in scoring defense. Those are very good numbers, up to Bud Foster and VT standards.

But how about just being able to get a stop when you need it? The images burned into most Hokies' minds from 2009 are those of the Hokies being unable to stop Georgia Tech's option attack in the second half, and being run over by Ryan Houston down the stretch of UNC's shocking win over the Hokies.

"Better" in those terms? Quite possibly. The common thread in the GT and UNC losses was the ineffectiveness of defensive tackle John Graves, who suffered a bad ankle injury when he was cut down by a blocker against the Jackets. Graves was hobbled the rest of the season and wasn't really healthy until he was able to take a month off between the end of the season and the bowl game.

When Graves returned against Tennessee for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, he was a one-man wrecking machine, prompting TSL football analyst Raleigh Hokie to remark in his analysis:

The entire defensive line played extremely hard, but my game ball goes to John Graves. He had his first career sack and he plowed through three blocks to get it. He also had a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He was a man possessed in this game. He was finally healthy again and Tennessee had no success blocking him. He will be a major piece of the puzzle next year - for his play and his leadership.

The Vols gave up just 12 sacks in 12 regular season games, but the Hokies, led by Graves, registered six sacks. If John Graves stays healthy, the Hokie defense has the potential to be better at getting the stop when they need it. The counterpoint to the return of John Graves is the loss of Cody Grimm to graduation, but, choosing to make this a positive TSLMail, we won't go there.

Will the Hokie defense be better statistically? Here at TSL, while acknowledging that scoring defense is the king of all defensive stats, we -- and everyone else, it seems -- like to measure defenses by their total defense ranking. After a disastrous 2003, Bud Foster had the Hokies in the top ten in total defense from 2004-2008, a span of five straight years: #4, #1, #1, #4, and #7.

Last year, the Hokies came in #12, the first season since 2003 (#51) that they finished outside the top ten.

A big reason was the season opener against Alabama, when the Tide rolled up 498 yards. After game one, the Hokies were ranked 98th in the nation in total defense, and over the rest of the season, they had to claw their way towards the top ten (week by week): #98, #80, #77, #38 (after shutting down Miami), #47, #35, and so forth. It took a while, and Tech barely missed the top ten.

Remove that one game from the schedule, and the Hokies' average yards given up drop from 295.5 (#12) to 278.6 (which still would have been just #11, but you get my point).

Chris Coleman has been saying for months that the current crop of Hokie defenders has the potential to be better than the 2009 defense. Tech is thin at defensive end and doesn't have a Jason Worilds-type impact DE (not that we know of, anyway), and the loss of Cody Grimm will be felt. But Eddie Whitley has the potential to be a better free safety than out-of-position Kam Chancellor, and neither one of Tech's projected starting CBs (Rashad Carmichael and Jayron Hosley) will be limited by a bum knee, such as the one Stephan Virgil had throughout 2009.

The 2009 Hokie defense also suffered from poor play at the backer position, where Jake Johnson got off to a good start but struggled, to say the least, as the season wore on. Johnson hit rock bottom during the UNC game (2 tackles) and was benched the next week in favor of Lyndell Gibson, who returns in 2010 as a five-game starter.

The 2009 Hokies also took time to find their starting rover. Dorian Porch started the first nine games, then gave way to Davon Morgan for the last four games. Like Lyndell Gibson, Morgan returns this year.

There is lots of room for defensive optimism in 2010: defensive tackle and cornerback won't be hampered by injury, backer is settled down, rover is settled down, and free safety should be improved.

On the downside, Cody Grimm and Jason Worilds must be replaced, defensive end is growing ever thinner, and mike linebacker Bruce Taylor, while very impressive in the spring, has never started a game. It's looking like Barquell Rivers will not be ready for the 2010 season from his torn quadriceps, and Taylor will be the guy at mike.

Overall, we like the Hokies' chances to return to the top ten defensively, if they avoid key injuries. Once this group gels, they will be a very good defense. One thing they have to do is avoid the punch-in-the-gut 500 yard games like Alabama in 2009.


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