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Virginia Tech progress reports: linebackers

As part of our continuing series taking a look at the Hokies' season through eight games, we turn our attention today to the linebackers. In case you missed it the past few days, here are breakdowns of the wide receivers, defensive line and running backs.

This starting unit was perhaps the most inexperienced group on a defense that was considered very green entering the year. With middle linebacker Barquell Rivers unable to return from a quad injury this year, the lone returning starter was Lyndell Gibson, and he only earned that spot midway through last year.

There have certainly been bright spots -- especially the emergence of middle linebacker Bruce Taylor -- but the inconsistency at the linebacker position is to blame for the Hokies' penchant for giving up big plays in the running game this year. Virginia Tech has allowed 44 runs of 10 or more yards, 19th most in the entire country so far.

The linebackers will have their biggest challenge yet when they face the option attack of Georgia Tech. Sure tackling and gap control will be paramount, and yet those are two things the Hokies have struggled with at times this year. Let's break it down player-by-player and see if we can find some answers that might provide insight into how the linebackers will perform the rest of the season.

MLB Bruce Taylor

If the defensive line is the position group that has emerged this season, Taylor has been the player that has turned into the biggest revelation for defensive coordinator Bud Foster. From fall training camp to the James Madison loss to the Hokies' six-game winning streak, he's been the best newcomer in the lineup -- and at times the best player on the field.

Taylor leads the team with 55 total tackles, and his 11.5 tackles for loss is tied for the third most in the ACC this year. He got off to a rough start against Boise State, committing a costly late-hit penalty and missing a tackle on a long Broncos touchdown run.

Ever since, he's been as good as can be expected from a player who hadn't played any meaningful minutes before this year. He graded out as the top defensive player against James Madison, finishing with eight solo tackles, five of which were tackles for loss. Two weeks later against Boston College he had seven solo tackles and two sacks. In the Central Michigan game, he had another eight solo tackles and a pass break up. In particular, Taylor has excelled making plays while attacking the line of scrimmage, when he doesn't have to think too much about coverages.

“Coming into the season I was excited to make plays," Taylor said. "You’re kind of nervous because it’s big-time college football, you kind of got to go out there and see what you got. I’ve been impressed with myself. As far as the season going so far, I’m making plays."

His pace has slowed in recent weeks (he has just three solo tackles in the past two games), but that's more a reflection of playing just 44 plays against Wake Forest thanks to so many big plays in that game, and 36 plays against Duke. One concern going forward is that according to Coach Frank Beamer, Taylor suffered a bruised knee last week and left the Blue Devils game earlier than most of the defensive starters.

“He’s banged up a little bit but [head athletic trainer] Mike Goforth feels like he’s gonna be okay," Beamer said Monday.

Considering Taylor has easily been the Hokies best linebacker this year, his health is crucial going forward.

Taylor's Grade: B+

OLB Lyndell Gibson

Gibson earned this starting gig last year, when he overtook Jake Johnson midway through the season. He finished with 53 total tackles, and except for an egregious missed tackle in the Boise State loss, Gibson picked up where he left off.

The redshirt sophomore had his best stretch of the season as the Hokies recovered from that mind-boggling loss to James Madison. He had 10 total tackles (four solo, six assisted) and a sack against East Carolina. He had nine total tackles the next week in a 19-0 shutout of Boston College. Gibson was at his best in the second half of Virginia Tech's comeback victory over North Carolina State. He finished with nine total tackles, a sack and four other quarterback hurries.

Since then, though, Gibson has largely been a non-factor. He has just five solo tackles in the past three games and defensive coordinator Bud Foster said redshirt freshman Tariq Edwards might start to see more playing time as a result. Gibson took the brunt of the criticism when Wake Forest running back Josh Harris rushed for a record 241 yards two weeks ago.

"If there is an issue with Lyndell, it might be that he’s in a little bit of a comfort zone right now," Foster said recently. "I think he’s got a lot of pride and I’ve challenged him here the last couple of weeks to be more productive. … The second half of the N.C. State game, he really played pretty well, and we’ve got to get him to that level.”

Gibson's Grade: B-

Whip LB Jeron Gouveia-Winslow

To call Gouveia-Winslow's first year in the Virginia Tech starting lineup a tumultuous one might be an understatement. He struggled mightily in the Hokies' first two losses, getting burned on two touchdowns against Boise State and missing a tackle on the long touchdown pass that gave James Madison the momentum it needed to pull off a major upset.

Since then, Gouveia-Winslow's role has been marginalized for the most part, with Foster choosing to play more nickel packages with free safety Antone Exum as an extra defensive back. Gouveia-Winslow was still involved in the Hokies' base and three-linemen packages for a time, but in recent weeks the Ashburn native has hardly seen the field. He's had season lows in plays the past two weeks and was on the field for just two defensive snaps against Duke.

“You can look at it a few ways,” Gouveia-Winslow said recently of his decreased role. "Motivation definitely. I definitely just wanna play my role for the team. I haven’t complained to the coaches, I just want to keep winning. As long as the team keeps winning I’m happy. ... In all honesty, it’s a better matchup with Antone on faster receivers."

Gouveia-Winslow's best game of the year came against Boston College when he made a diving interception along the sideline, a pick that ultimately got Eagles quarterback Dave Shinskie benched. He'll need a similar performance this week, as his playing time will likely increase since Georgia Tech will try to run the ball down the teeth of the Hokies defense. You have to wonder, though, just how confident he is after seeing such limited action the past few weeks.

Gouveia-Winslow's Grade: C

MLB Jack Tyler

The Oakton High graduate has only gotten defensive snaps in three of the Hokies' games this year, but Foster has lauded his ability to attack downhill and stop the run. He was on the field for a season-high 31 plays and had the best statistical game of his career against Duke, finishing with six total tackles. Tyler had two tackles for loss in just 14 plays against Central Michigan.

Foster wants to see more consistency from him in pass coverage, but don't be surprised if Tyler sees more action than usual against the Yellow Jackets next week.

Tyler's Grade: B-

OLB Tariq Edwards

Like Tyler, Edwards has seen action in just three games this year. Foster mentioned two weeks ago he could get some of Gibson's playing time if Gibson continues to struggle. Thus far, though, it's been an empty threat. Edwards did, however, play a season-high 24 plays against Duke. He has just four solo tackles this year.

The fact that Edwards and Tyler haven't played more even with Gouveia-Winslow and Gibson's struggles this year tells you a lot about the Hokies depth at linebacker and Foster's confidence in his reserves.

Edwards Grade: C+

By Mark Giannotto  | October 29, 2010; 12:09 PM ET
 
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