The Lewis brothers are back again as starters at defensive tackle, and both
need to improve on their play last season. Kevin, a 6’1”, 288 lb. R-SR, did
not have the kind of season many expected of him last year. At his best, he is a
penetrating force that disrupts the opposing offense’s timing.
T-JR Jonathan Lewis is slightly bigger than his brother at 300 lbs., and he
has big time ability. He is capable of commanding a double team. Last year
Jonathan was very inconsistent; this season he needs to develop into a bell cow
on the line or things could get tough in the ACC. There is no reason Lewis
shouldn’t be a top 10 DT in the ACC. The fact he stayed in Blacksburg this
summer improving his conditioning should bode well, as that was an issue last
The third tackle is 6’2”, 287 lb. R-FR Carlton Powell. Powell nearly
played last season, but Coach Wiles decided to keep the ‘shirt on him. He is
an impressive talent who has size, strength and surprisingly very good technique
for such a young player. He should be able to compete at the ACC level right
away, and that’s no small compliment.
The fourth tackle is veteran Jason Lallis. Lallis, a R-SR, is undersized (6’0”,
250 lbs.) but he gives great effort and plays with good leverage. The coaches
know exactly what he will give them, and consistency is something coveted by the
staff. Lallis also has experience at DE, and if Trott is out a while, don’t be
shocked if he gets some snaps there (assuming the DT rotation is progressing
Like defensive end, Coach Wiles likes to have five players rotate at tackle.
The fifth spot is uncertain. The player with the most upside is R-FR Kory
Robertson (6’2”, 317 lbs.), but he was very inconsistent in the spring. If
Coach Wiles can get Robertson to minimize his “bad plays”, he could be a
significant contributor. Robertson has shocking quickness for his size, but
still needs more weight room time. Even if Robertson doesn’t see the field
much this year, he’s got a very high ceiling.
R-JR Tim Sandidge has a significant amount of experience, and he’s got
solid size at 6’1”, 301 lbs. He made a lot of “negative” plays –
pushing the offense backwards, so that’s a good thing -- as a redshirt
freshman, but he seemed to regress last year. It seems like he’s at his best
when his snaps are limited. He could be the fifth tackle if the other newcomers
R-FR Barry Booker is also a solid long term prospect. Booker is tall (6’4”),
agile and a better athlete than many defensive ends. However, he still has to
develop the disposition necessary to compete consistently in the trenches, and
he needs to add a significant amount of upper body strength.
R-SO Chris Burnett has impressive strength, but as an offensive line convert
it seems unlikely he’ll be ready to play this fall.
There is one incoming freshman at defensive tackle, and he is a very good
one. Carl Howard is 6’4”, 295 lbs. with a terrific wingspan and good
athletic skills. Howard did not make any of the national “lists”, but his
offer sheet was impressive and his highlight tape even more so. He could be the
best player in this recruiting class. Howard’s dad also played in the NFL, so
he has impressive lineage. If he grasp the schematic nuances from Coach Wiles,
he could play this year.
The rotation on the defensive line this season is still in flux. There are
only five scholarship defensive ends right now, including the converted
Montgomery, two without any game experience at end, and four tackles that Coach
Wiles is comfortable playing (again one without any game experience). That doesn’t
mean that other tackles won’t step up their play, but it is an unknown.
Ideally, I think VT would like to situationally substitute to permit a line
of Tapp, Burchette/Ellis, Davis and Lallis on third and long. Unfortunately,
that may not happen because of depth concerns. The versatility of Davis and
Lallis may help cover VT this fall as both can play defensive end or defensive
tackle depending on the circumstance. The line has the potential to be one of
the top four or five in the ACC, but they will have to prove it on the field.
The Hokies’ struggles against the run also raised questions about the
inside linebackers in Blacksburg. Questions about instinctiveness, size, and
technique have all been raised. Traditionally, the Hokies do not substitute
their linebackers liberally, and that has contributed to the linebackers wearing
down over the course of a 13 game season. I suspect you will see a regular
substitution pattern in 2004.
The returning starter at mike is 5’10”, 225 lb. R-SR Mikal Baaqee. Baaqee’s
weight has been a constant issue as he played too light as a sophomore and too
heavy as a junior. Assuming he reports at 225, he will be at his optimum weight
according to Coach Foster. Baaqee has struggled taking on blockers flush; he is
at his best when he can flow to the ball and make plays on the ball. Baaqee runs
well and is better than given credit for in pass coverage.
The future at mike is 6’0”, 237 lb. R-FR Vince Hall. Hall is the
prototype run stuffer: he has thick legs and is a very solid technique tackler.
He’s also got a reputation as a tough kid. Hall needs to continue to work hard
in the weight room and understand pass coverage concepts better, but he could be
a very special linebacker in time. Many have speculated that Hall could win the
job outright. It could happen, but I doubt it occurs in the first half of the
season. My guess is that Baaqee and Hall will split the snaps early, perhaps in
a 2:1 ratio. They both would benefit from the rotation.
As for the backer position, the future is now. 6’2”, 229 lb. R-FR Xavier
Adibi may be second on the depth chart entering August, but I believe he’ll be
first by the time USC comes into FedEx Field (though a hamstring injury, the
seriousness of which is unknown as we “go to press”, could slow down his
progress). Adibi just keeps receiving raves from the staff. He might be the
fastest inside linebacker VT has had in the Beamer era – he certainly is since
the departure of Ben Taylor – and he has a nasty disposition. Adibi flows to
the ball well and can strike a blow. He also occasionally struggles in coverage,
and he will need to improve in that regard. The talent is there, though.
JR Blake Warren has blossomed into a solid player and stands on the depth
chart first right now. Warren has better size than any of the other inside
linebackers (6’3”, 246 lbs.), plus he has prior experience at safety so he
understands coverage concepts better than either of the redshirt freshmen.
Warren does a lot of things well, but ultimately I think Adibi wins the job
because of superior athleticism. Regardless of who wins the job, the backup -
whomever that may be - will still see a lot of field time.
Barring injury, I don’t see freshmen Andrew Bowman (6’0”, 230 lbs.) or
Brett Warren (6’1”, 225 lbs.) taking the field. Bowman was a highly sought
after in-state prospect, but it will be tough for him to take time from Adibi
and Blake Warren at backer. That position is solid. Brett Warren seems like a
good fit system wise at VT, but he needs to take a redshirt year to improve his
size/speed ratio. Much like his brother, with some time he could be a nice
player for the Hokies.
Under the prior scheme it made sense to discuss these positions together
because the physical requirements were similar. If the defensive changes are as
dramatic as they have been described, it may make sense to discuss them
separately but for now I’ll still analyze them together.
Whip is the deepest position on the defense and looks to be in good hands
over the next few years. Atop the depth chart after a stellar spring is 6’2”,
222 lb. R-JR elite athlete James Anderson. Anderson was a special teams demon
last year, as he demonstrated his ability to run and tackle in space. With the
coverage aspect of whip being de-emphasized, he flourished in the spring.
Anderson made a ton of negative plays this spring and probably played as well as
anyone on the defensive side of the ball. The new scheme really plays to his
Behind Anderson is R-SO Aaron Rouse. Rouse is a bigger hitter than his
numbers (6’2”, 210 lbs.) would indicate, and he simply finds a way to make
plays. If Anderson slips from outstanding to just pretty good, he will have
Rouse leapfrog him into the starting spot. Rouse still makes mental mistakes,
but he knows how to lay the wood to an opposing ball carrier.
It has to be tough for R-SR Brandon Manning (6’0”, 220 lbs.). A starter
for virtually all of the last two years, he currently finds himself residing at
third on the depth chart. Manning is better in pass coverage than Anderson or
Rouse, and he makes a lot of fundamental plays. He simply lacks the big play
capability of those in front of him, but make no mistake about it – Manning is
capable of contributing significantly if called upon by Coach Cav. All of these
whips also may be key special teams coverage players.
The responsibilities at rover are handled by SR James Griffin. Griffin is 6’1”,
198 lbs., and he also likes to be around the ball. Griffin struggled a lot with
the system and discipline required last year, but that is not uncommon for
junior college transfers in their first season at VT. He was significantly
improved in the spring, and with the summer in the weight room he could be
primed for a nice season. VT often has senior rovers emerge like Kevin McCadam
and Michael Crawford; the Hokies need that kind of effort from Griffin.
The backup rover position is very much unsettled going into the fall. The
candidates are, in order of seniority, R-JR D.J. Walton (5’9”, 193 lbs.),
R-SO Cary Wade (5’10”, 179) and true freshman Kent Hicks (6’2”, 205
lbs.). Walton has less than ideal measurables, and his decision making could use
some improvement as well.
Wade is a solid player who is probably a step or two slow to be a really top
notch rover. He also hasn’t been as consistent as the coaches would like, and
he’ll have to turn up that aspect of his game if he wants to claim the backup
The magnitude of the late addition of Hicks to last year’s recruiting class
is probably lost on a lot of Hokie fans, but keep in mind that he was very
likely one of VT’s top five biggest recruiting “misses” in 2004. He has to
be considered one of VT’s top three or four incoming recruits, and he also
plays a position with a significant long term need.
Physically, Hicks is superior to any of the other backup candidates. He’s
tall and rangy with the ability to punish ball carriers. Because of Griffin’s
impending departure, don’t be surprised to see Hicks see the field this fall
if he can grasp the system. On paper, he also seems like a great special teams
The grand experiment in Blacksburg this spring involved switching positions
for two of VT’s most experienced defenders. The early results are favorable,
but the ultimate advisability of the decision will wait until fall.
VT’s corners have the ability to range with any tandem in the conference.
At boundary corner, VT’s most physically gifted upperclassman holds down the
fort. 6’3”, 220 lbs. with 4.4 speed, Jimmy Williams should be a star. I
hyped him mercilessly last year, and he disappointed at free safety. The staff
believes simplifying his duties will allow Jimmy to perform at his best. He
should be tremendous jamming opposing wide receivers, and he’ll also be a
force coming off the short corner in the event Coach Foster wants to corner
blitz. I think he’ll rebound with a very good junior season, and if he does,
the NFL may come calling.
The field corner is R-SR Eric Green. Green, 6’0”, 198 lbs., drew raves
from the normally reserved Coach Ward after his performance this spring. He even
predicted that with similar improvement/production this fall, Green could be
ticketed for the first round of the NFL draft. Green is now 100% recovered from
his knee injury, and he’s always shown the ability to make plays with the ball
in the air. With a renewed sense of purpose and better concentration, he appears
ready to make the next step towards becoming an elite player.
The backups at both corner positions are freshmen. R-FR Roland Minor backs up
Jimmy Williams, and he impressed a lot of the spring game crowd with some big
hits and timely plays. Minor seems genuinely unimpressed by the big stage (a
good thing), and he looks like he could add some quality depth this season.
At field corner is former Phoebus star D.J. Parker. Parker is only 6’0”,
175 lbs., so he needs a lot of time in the weight room. That’s not uncommon
for a true freshman. What is uncommon is his ability to turn his hips and run, a
trait that is imperative for a great corner. He’s got a terrific upside, but
Coach Ward will need to bring him along quickly this fall. It is very tough to
play corner at an ACC level as a true freshman, but his season at prep school
and going through a spring practice should help.
There are three other scholarship corners that could crack the two deep. R-SO
Brian McPherson has solid strength and okay size (5’10”, 189 lbs.), but hasn’t
shown the short memory needed to excel as a major college defensive back. He
would be the fifth corner going into the fall.
Incoming freshmen Brandon Flowers (5’10”, 175 lbs.) from Hargrave and
Theodore Miller (6’2”, 190 lbs.) from H.D. Woodson bring contrasting games
and styles. Flowers is a polished defensive back from Florida with terrific
footwork. He lacks ideal size, but he could play early because he’s
technically sound. Miller is a longer range prospect, but he’s a terrific
talent. H.D. Woodson’s defensive coordinator called him more physically gifted
than Roland Minor, quite an endorsement given the staff’s positive opinion of
Minor. While I love Miller’s height and leaping ability at corner, I also have
to think he will get eyeballed as a potential free safety candidate, especially
if Corey Gordon gets moved.
At free safety, Vinnie Fuller is the starter. Fuller started out at VT as a
free safety, and he returns to his old position as a R-SR. He has great range
and a better understanding of the defense than Jimmy Williams apparently did.
The only knock on Fuller that I can see is that he is a little lighter than
ideal at 184 lbs. However, considering the fact the ACC is probably a less
physical running league than the former Big East was, and we may see more two
deep with freshmen corners playing, Fuller’s run support may not be quite as
important this year as it would have been last year.
The backup free safety is another R-SR Mike Daniels (6’0”, 212 lbs.).
Daniels started a couple of contests as a freshman, and appeared on his way to
being a multi-year starter. That never happened, but he’s still been a very
valuable contributor on special teams and by providing depth. Every team needs
veteran, experienced players like Daniels or Brandon Manning.
R-FR Corey Gordon has great size (6’2”, 212 lbs.) and hits like a ton of
bricks, but he still needs some polish and work on his coverage skills. He gets
the benefit of sitting and learning behind two seniors. Hopefully he’ll study
hard because if he stays at free safety he will have a legitimate chance to
start next season. Gordon is currently out with a hamstring injury.
Coach Foster will face a challenge this year with all of the youth on the
defense. He may have to scheme to protect the young corners, or substitute
liberally to give the youngsters more rest because they aren’t as strong as
they will be in the future, but he also should deal with this year’s growing
pains confident that he’s building something special for the future. I
anticipate VT having no fewer than seven redshirt or true freshmen on the
defensive two deep. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that there might
only be three redshirt freshmen that do not make the two deep – Kory
Robertson, Barry Booker and Corey Gordon – and all appear to have solid
futures as well. The long term prognosis looks good on defense; the question
remains for how well that translates into this season.