Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia Tech defense must rely on help from second group

BLACKSBURG - Defensively, we're really happy with our first group.

Those words were comforting back in August. Pretty much every Virginia Tech defensive coach uttered some variation of that line in the preseason. Bud Foster. Charley Wiles. Frank Beamer.

Yes, they understood why people had questions about Tech's defense. The numbers weren't great last year. The questions were warranted. But the staff liked those first stringers, thought there was a chance that unit could be very good.

And they were right. Tech's defense was quite good - surprisingly good. Through their first five games, the Hokies ranked second in the nation against the run, fourth in total yards allowed and eighth in points surrendered.

Then along came Miami. Down went the rankings. After yielding 519yards and 35points against the Hurricanes on Saturday, Tech dropped to 13th in rushing defense and total defense and 14th in scoring defense.

So what changed? Well, for starters †the starters.

"We've had too many injuries," Beamer said Tuesday. "Some years you go through and you have the same people every week. Some years you go through and you don't. This is one of those years where we don't have the same people.

"Instead of being smooth, it's sort of a bumpy ride right now. But we'll see who we can get well this week and who we can put on the field on Saturday."

You can all but count out outside linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow,who's been wearing a walking boot after getting injured against Miami. Defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins is gone for the year. So is defensive tackle Kwamaine Battle.

Star defensive end James Gayle played just six snaps against the Hurricanes before leaving the game for good with a sprained ankle. Although he sat out of practice Monday, his injury is considered the least serious, meaning he could be back this week against Wake Forest.

Still, that "first group" looks very different than it did in August. Tech's depth is going to be tested, particularly when facing Wake tailback Josh Harris, who ran for 241yards against the Hokies last year - a record for a running back against Tech.

The challenge of stopping him falls to guys like Corey Marshall, a freshman who is starting in place of Hopkins, and Alonzo Tweedy,who filled in for Gouveia-Winslow against Miami.

Tight end Chris Drager knows what those newcomers are going through. Before moving to offense this year, he was a defensive lineman.

"It's entirely, almost, fundamentals," he said. "You have to practice and chip away at it, chip away at it, chip away at it. It's not something that comes overnight. But at the same time, they're going to do their best. I hope it works out."

If you expected Foster to be spitting fire after that performance on Saturday, guess again. He wasn't happy about the numbers, but the combination of the victory and the circumstances softened his postgame speech.

"He understood we had young guys in there," free safety Antone Exum said. "With young guys on a big stage like this, mistakes are going to happen. And Miami's a good football team, so they're going to make big plays. It wasn't like we were going to hold them to zero yards rushing.

"He was understanding, but at the same time, he's trying to teach. We can learn from what happened on the field on Saturday and try to prevent it."

That would have to start, Exum said, with tackling more efficiently and doing a better job with gap responsibilities.

"I think for our defense, one of the positives is a lot of times when big plays are made, there are always minor adjustments," he said. "So maybe a guy was inside leverage who should have been outside leverage, which makes the play preventable, which could prevent a touchdown. I think we saw those things on film yesterday morning and we moved on."

To an uncertain future. After Saturday, we'll know whether Tech's happy with its "new" first group.

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