Sunday, April 10, 2011
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia Tech defensive end James Gayle shows signs of stardom

BLACKSBURG -- Some people say there's nothing to be gleaned from Virginia Tech spring football scrimmages.

Nonsense.

Yes, you can be fooled. When third-stringers face third-stringers, you can be tricked into thinking a certain third-stringer is better than he is. You can get duped into thinking weak pass coverage by fledglings is really great passing by the quarterback. You can be swindled into thinking that you've suddenly found a star when a defensive lineman swims past an offensive tackle who will never sniff a down that counts.

Here's what can you can count on, though: When the first-team offense faces the first-team defense, you might see something that you'll see in the fall. Especially when Tech coach Frank Beamer starts shouting one of those time-honored, pump-'em-up coaching phrases: "Who's gonna win it???!!!"

The answer is James Gayle. He won it Saturday.

Tech's redshirt sophomore defensive end was credited with three sacks in Saturday's scrimmage at Lane Stadium, and I have no earthly idea the caliber of competition he was facing when he got two of them. But I do know he got one of them right after Beamer screamed those words during the "good-on-good" portion of the practice.

That's when Gayle burst through the line and tagged yellow-jerseyed quarterback Logan Thomas, who was ruled down on contact. Gayle then turned to the defensive sideline, raised his arms and let out a primal roar.

Yeah, that's the stuff that matters.

Gayle is going to be a player for the Hokies this year. Guaranteed. He showed some promise for the Hokies last year, accumulating four sacks and a dozen quarterback hurries as a role-playing redshirt freshman, but this will be the year he breaks through.

"He's going to end up being a leader here," Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. "He plays hard. He's getting a lot of kids' respect, and he's going to be a playmaker if he stays healthy. I think he's got some of those natural characteristics about him. He's got a lot of energy. He plays with a lot of emotion. And you like that in a defensive kid."

With Chris Drager moving to offense and Steven Friday gone, Gayle is on track to be one of two new starters at defensive end. Put as much credence into the following statistic as you wish, but the Hokies have clocked Gayle at 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash -- a ridiculous figure for a man who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 255 pounds.

Gayle wasn't always that big. He says he entered Bethel High School in Hampton as a 5-foot-6, 130-pound nobody, but he never had any doubts that he would play at the next level.

"Oh, no," he said. "I was always telling people that I was going to play in college. They didn't believe me though."

He had reason to believe. His father (a running back) and uncle (a safety) both played at Ohio State. He was always one of the faster players on his youth-league teams. And as he started to grow, Gayle was offered a scholarship to Tech, which made him even more confident.

"I came in thinking I was going to start," he said with a smile, when asked if taking a redshirt year was tough. "I guess that's everybody, but you've just got to wait your turn and learn the position."

And that's been the key for Gayle. Foster compares him to former standout Hokies defensive end Darryl Tapp, who spent two years chasing the quarterback before realizing there was more to his position than that.

"He's made big strides already from the end of the season to right now, just in his basic alignments, his footwork," Foster said. "He's just confident in what he's doing right now, and I really like that."

He should. Too often last year, Tech's young defensive players were more worried about where they should line up than what great play they were about to make. In Foster's parlance, "their mind tied up their feet."

That shouldn't be a problem for Gayle, who quickly is learning that he has responsibilities against the run as well as the pass. And he has the edge on other new starters who've never played a significant down. Last year, he started against East Carolina and North Carolina, recording two sacks against the Tar Heels.

"Confidence-wise, it just shows me that I can play with them, you know?" Gayle said. "Before your first snap, you really don't know what to expect. Now I know I can go out there and dominate."

In the spring or in the fall.

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