Back Hokie Defense Should Rebound in 2019

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Hokie Defense Should Rebound in 2019

By Dave Holcomb
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Because of several early NFL departures last offseason, the Hokies had one of the youngest defenses in the country during 2018.

A lot of ACC football experts might call Bud Foster a magician for his successful tenure as defensive coordinator at Virginia Tech the last two decades. But even magicians sometimes run out of magic.

In 2018, the Virginia Tech defense didn’t have much of anything that resembled magic. The Hokies gave up 31 points per game and 438.7 yards per contest, which was ranked 10th and 11th in the ACC, respectively. Both totals were the highest ever for the program since Foster became defensive coordinator in 1995.

Furthermore, Virginia Tech was 10th in the conference with seven interceptions and 11th with 24 sacks. Just one year earlier, the Hokies had 13 picks and 32 sacks.

The biggest explanation for the massive dropoff in the Virginia Tech defense is the inexperience at key positions. Because of several early NFL departures last offseason, the Hokies had one of the youngest defenses in the country during 2018. Injuries made the unit even younger -- by the time Virginia Tech played Cincinnati in the Military Bowl, Foster was starting nine freshmen or sophomores on his defense.

The defensive statistics clearly indicate the unit went through significant growing pains last fall, but assuming they can stay healthy, all that experience the Virginia Tech young defensive players gained will be a blessing in disguise for 2019.

Virginia Tech’s defense will again be a younger unit this fall; according to the depth chart at, the Hokies are projected to have only one starting senior. But each of the top five tacklers on last year’s team will be back, including rising junior linebacker Rayshard Ashby.

Ashby led the Hokies with 105 total tackles last fall, which was 17 more than anyone else on the team. Sophomore-to-be Dax Hollifield and Ashby should make up a dynamic linebacker duo that alone can bring more stability to the Virginia Tech defense. Hollifield posted 62 total tackles, including 8.0 for loss, as a freshman last season.

Safeties Reggie Floyd and Divine Deablo make up two of the other top five incumbent tacklers for the Hokies. Clearly, the strength of the Virginia Tech defense will be up the middle. Floyd was second on the team with 88 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss a year ago. He also had two interceptions.

Deablo posted 55 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups. Fellow defensive back Khalil Ladler, who finished third on the team with 66 tackles, will also return.

Those five players are the foundation the Virginia Tech defense can be built upon during fall camp. Similar to last season, defensive line remains a concern, but the position group does have a chance to improve despite losing defensive lineman Ricky Walker, who signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an unrestricted free agent.

While Walker led the team with 11.5 tackles for loss and his unit with 49 total tackles, the Virginia Tech defensive line does return its other top six tacklers from 2018. That includes rising senior Houshun Gaines, who will be returning from an ACL tear he sustained late in the season. Despite playing just nine games, Gaines led the team with 4.5 sacks.

Injuries hurt the secondary as well, as cornerback Jeremy Webb missed all of last season with an Achilles injury. He will return to likely start opposite sophomore-to-be Caleb Farley, who was tied with Floyd with a team-high two interceptions.

With an additional year of experience in Foster’s scheme under their belts, many of the Virginia Tech defenders have a chance to be much better in 2019. It’s hard to fathom the unit getting much worse anyway, but in particularly if so many players improve.

Foster didn’t all the sudden lose his ability to coach defense. A more experienced, stable unit will ultimately play better.

The experience of last season’s adversity could prove to be important too, as Virginia Tech prepares to square off against multiple tough opponents on the road this fall. Overall, the Hokies face a relatively easy slate, and they reside in one of the most wide-open Power 5 divisions, but Virginia Tech does play Boston College, Miami and Virginia all on the road in 2019. Additionally, the Hokies will travel to South Bend to face Notre Dame.

This is an important year for Foster and head coach Justin Fuente. They must earn back the trust of a fanbase that’s been treated to 26 years with a bowl game. The Hokies were just barely able to keep the streak alive last year.

The 2019 Virginia Tech defense appears capable of much more than just extending that streak one more season. Stability and experience could bring Foster’s unit back to prominence.