Virginia Tech progress reports: defensive line
We're eight games into Virginia Tech's football season, and with a bye this weekend, there isn't a better time to take stock of what's happened and who has played well. Monday, we took a look at the wide receivers. Today we move on to the defensive line.
As a whole, the defensive line was young and inexperienced in key spots with senior defensive tackle John Graves the lone returning starter. Senior Steven Friday is starting for the first time in his career in Blacksburg and junior Chris Drager is just a year removed from making the switch from tight end to defensive end. Not to mention the other starting defensive tackle out of training camp, junior Kwamaine Battle, suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the Hokies' loss to James Madison.
Despite all that, the unit has been one of the bright spots for Virginia Tech this year. The Hokies rank fourth in the ACC and 14th in the nation with 20 sacks thus far. And it's not just one dominant player getting to the quarterback either, as nine Virginia Tech players have accumulated those sacks. They've also forced four fumbles and have a combined 29 tackles for a loss. But let's take a look player-by-player.
DE Steven Friday
Friday had to bide his time behind the likes of Jason Worilds and Orion Martin during his first four years at Virginia Tech, but he's made the most of his redshirt senior season. Friday leads the Hokies with four sacks, though he hasn't had one since a 19-0 win over Boston College.
In that game, Friday terrorized Boston College right tackle Anthony Castonzo, a likely first-round NFL draft pick, finishing with 4.5 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. Friday also had a sack against Boise State's veteran line and a nine-tackle day against James Madison. He leads all defensive linemen with 34 total tackles this season.
It seems, though, that his speed on the edge has gotten the attention of opposing coaches. Friday is frequently seeing a tight end line up on top of him or a running back chip him at the snap lately. It's no coincidence then that Drager and Antoine Hopkins, facing mostly one-on-one matchups, have played some of their best football of the year recently.
"It’s more reps," Friday said earlier this year. "You can practice all day, but until you get more reps in the game, that’s how you get better. I think that definitely helped me.”
Friday's Grade: B+
DE Chris Drager
Drager hurt his knee in the first half of the Boise State loss and missed the James Madison upset, suffered a slight concussion against Central Michigan and is still getting used to playing defensive end after spending his first two years at Virginia Tech as a tight end. But that hasn't stopped him from having a successful junior season.
Drager, who grew up outside Pittsburgh, has twice graded higher than any defensive player (against Boston College and Wake Forest). He has four pass break-ups this year, and in that win over the Eagles he sacked quarterback Dave Shinskie, forced a fumble and recovered it all in one play. His pressure on North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson forced the interception that essentially sealed a Hokies victory. He also pressured Duke quarterback Brandon Connette into an interception this past weekend.
Despite all that, his stats are a bit underwhelming. He hasn't had a game with more than one tackle for loss and he's last among starters on the defensive line with 14 tackles total this season. That, though, is due in part to missing a good chunk of both the Boise State and Central Michigan games, as well as the entire James Madison game.
"Chris is a tough nut, that's what he is," defensive coordinator Bud Foster said earlier this year. "Everybody knows that he has physical toughness, but he's got tremendous mental toughness. I think the kid is just what you want. He's a work-ethic guy, a tough guy who you know what you're going to get every day. He's probably the ultimate lunch-pail guy."
Drager's Grade: B+
DT John Graves
Graves was the lone returning starter on the defensive line this year and was coming off a tremendous performance in the Chick fil-A Bowl win over Tennessee (first career sack, two tackles for loss, forced a fumble and then recovered it). Because of that, Graves has seen his fair share of double teams this season and his stats reflect that.
Ironically, his best game of the year came against James Madison when he was in on 12 total tackles (four solo) and a tackle for loss with the Dukes leaning heavily on their running game. But perhaps most importantly, he's been a leader and a stable presence for a defense that has incorporated seven new starters into the mix. Stats, though, don't do him justice. He hasn't had more than four solo tackles in any game, and has yet to sack the quarterback.
But that doesn't mean Graves isn't appreciated. He carries the famed lunch pail every day and earlier this year Wiles called him a "warrior."
"He ties up a lot of offensive linemen so me and Lyndell [Gibson], anybody else, like even on a pressure, we have a lot of chances to come free because they have so many problems blocking him," said middle linebacker Bruce Taylor, who leads the team in tackles. "John's just a great teammate, a guy who’s not selfish at all. He’s gonna do it for the team. Whatever the team needs him to do, he does."
Graves Grade: B
DT Antoine Hopkins
Hopkins was thrust into a starting role after Kwamaine Battle went down with a torn ACL against James Madison. And after registering no tackles in the Hokies first two games, it seems Hopkins has grown more comfortable now that he's a starter. He's got a tackle for loss in three of his past four games, including a sack against Duke, and now sits tied for third on the team in that category with 4.5 for the season.
The criticism of Hopkins in the past has been that he didn't always make the most of his talents, that his effort could wane from play to play. But his growing importance and the presence of his brother, Derrick, on the roster seem to have ignited his motor more. Maybe the best compliment is that I haven't noticed any sort of drop off along the defensive line since Battle went down.
Hopkins Grade: B
DE J.R. Collins
To me, there's been no bigger surprise along the defensive line than the Hokies back-up defensive ends. Playing behind Friday and Drager, the Hokies most productive linemen, Collins has made a large impact in a limited amount of action, consistently drawing praise from Foster and defensive line coach Charley Wiles.
The redshirt freshman had a fumble recovery against Boise State and has recorded a sack in each of his past three games. His best performance of the year came against Central Michigan when he had three solo tackles, three assists, three hurries and a sack.
Collins Grade: B+
DE James Gayle
Like his classmate Collins, Gayle has shown he could become a force despite limited playing time. He's tied for third on the team in tackles for a loss with 4.5 and he's consistently shed blockers and gotten into the backfield when on the field.
His best game came against Boston College, when he had two tackles for loss and a sack in just 19 snaps. That caught Foster's eye and it looks increasingly likely that there will be an intense spring practice battle between Gayle and Collins for Friday's starting defensive end spot next year.
“James Gayle is a guy who really has a lot of potential," Foster said after the Boston College game. "You’re seeing Gayle with a different speed. He played 19 plays and 18 of them were really, really good. You’re starting to see him make some big, big strides. I think he’s really improved the last couple weeks. What he did the other day was real special."
Gayle's Grade: B+
DT Derrick Hopkins
Hopkins, a true freshman, has shown flashes of what he could be in limited action playing both end and tackle for the Hokies. He had his first career sack against East Carolina and has played in every game except the loss to James Madison. His biggest contribution, though, is his natural motor and hustle. Foster and Wiles have both said it has motivated his older brother, Antoine, to work harder so his younger sibling doesn't out shine him.
Hopkins Grade: B
DT Kwamaine Battle
Coaches thought Battle would team up with Graves to form an intimidating duo against opposing offensive lines. A redshirt junior, Battle had a strong spring and summer to claim the starting job. He had a tackle for loss agianst Boise State, but six plays into the James Madison game he limped off the field with a torn ACL. It remains to be seen whether he'll be able to apply for a medical redshirt, but expect Battle to return to the starting lineup next year when Graves graduates.
Battle's Grade: Incomplete