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Repacking the Lunch Pail

By Matthew Osborne
SouthernPigskin.com
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With the right blend of talent and experience, Virginia Tech is the early favorites to stake claim to the best defense in the ACC this fall.

The 2012 season was a campaign of unprecedented mediocrity for the Virginia Tech Hokies.

Until last fall, Frank Beamer’s squad had set the golden standard for consistency in major college football. Through the Hokies’ first eight seasons in the ACC, the team had never failed to reach double-digit wins, claiming four conference championships in the process.

Such a long-term run of dominance set the stage for the Hokies to fall victim to their lofty, and probably unrealistic, newfound expectations.

With the bar set to an almost unobtainable level, last season’s 7-6 ledger felt much worse than your typical bowl season for fans in Blacksburg.

Four conference wins and a postseason invitation are laudable accomplishments for certain programs, but, until last fall, they had been foregone conclusions for Virginia Tech fans.

An overtime victory over Rutgers in the Russell Athletic Bowl was a nice way to finish the season, but for a program for which BCS bowl appearances had become customary, the 2012 campaign was an embarrassment.

Though the final record was a far cry from what had become the norm for Virginia Tech, there was one aspect of the program which still resembled the Hokies’ teams of old: the suffocating defense.

The Hokies finished second in the conference in both scoring defense (22.8 points per game) and total defense (333.2 yards per game), trailing only Florida State in both categories.

It was a solid, although unspectacular, performance from a unit which many experts had projected to be Bud Foster’s best unit ever prior to the start of the season. The unit was undoubtedly one of the top defenses in the country, but lofty defensive rankings were nothing to write home about for the “Lunch Pail” defense.

As we prepare to turn the page for another college football regular season, it appears that last season’s overbearing expectations for the defense might be more applicable to this Virginia Tech squad.

Needing to rely on Foster’s unit while Scot Loeffler attempts to install his new offense, the Hokies have the fortunate luxury of returning nine starters on the defensive side of the football.

It also lessens the blow that not a single player from last year’s defense was selected in the most recent NFL Draft.

Leading the way for the 2013 Virginia Tech defense will be a defensive line which will utilize the exact same starting lineup as last fall: defensive end James Gayle, defensive tackle Luther Maddy, defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins and defensive end J.R. Collins. The big bodies in the trenches helped lead a Virginia Tech pass rush which led the conference in sacks per game (2.69) and tackles for loss (99) last season.

Jack Tyler is the only returning starter at linebacker, but he will provide a steadying presence in the middle of the defense. Tyler was third in the conference in tackles last fall (119), and will almost certainly be a preseason All-ACC selection.

Ronny Vandyke and Tariq Edwards will be responsible for helping to lessen some of Tyler’s workload, replacing departed players Bruce Taylor and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow. The two combined for 25 tackles last season.

Much like the defensive line, the back end of the defense will be manned by veteran players with significant starting experience.

Cornerback Donovan Riley is the only current projected starter that was not in the starting lineup in 2012, as he served in a backup role to Antone Exum, whose status for the 2013 season is still in question with a knee injury. Exum could be back in time for the season opener against Alabama, or he could miss a significant portion of the season.

Kyle Fuller and safeties Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner give the Hokies the most proven secondary in the conference, while incoming freshmen Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller will help improve the overall talent and athleticism of the group.

While the big story coming out of spring practice was Virginia Tech’s perceived problems on offense, not enough attention is being paid to a Hokies defense which should be one of the best in program history.

With the right blend of talent and experience, the Hokies are the early favorites to stake claim to the best defense in the conference this fall.

It is the perfect time for the Hokies to bolster their defense as well, as the defensive expectations will need to come to fruition if the Hokies hope to return to their dominating ways in the ACC.

Matthew Osborne - With an extensive background in both writing and high school recruiting, Matt serves as the Editor and Director of Recruiting for Southern Pigskin. Once serving as the South Region Senior Scout for a national scouting service, Matt is very familiar with the top football prospects in the south. If it is a weekend in the fall, you can rest assured that Matt is on the road watching some of the top high school and college games in the region. To keep up with all of the latest recruiting news in the south, be sure to follow Matt on Twitter: @MattOsborneSP. You can email him at matt@southernpigskin.com.