Early in the regular season, Virginia Tech’s defense had already lost starting outside linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and starting defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins to season-ending knee injuries. Starting defensive end James Gayle had missed a couple of games, along with starting cornerback Jayron Hosley.
Just when it seemed it couldn’t get much worse, Virginia Tech lost linebacker Bruce Taylor – arguably the leader of the defense and the unit’s best player - to a season-ending mid-foot sprain. In a span of four games, the Hokies had lost three starters.
“That’s when you said, ‘Man, enough is enough,’” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “We haven’t had as many injuries on the defensive side in, I don’t know, forever, the 25 years I’ve been here.”
And yet in spite of it all, with two true freshmen in the two-deep at defensive tackle, Virginia Tech enters the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Michigan with one of the nation’s top defenses. And the Hokies are going to need it. Those who have paid close attention to Virginia Tech’s defense under Foster would probably agree that this has been one of the best coaching jobs of his career. Not only did the Hokies make dramatic improvements from 2010, but they also did it with a young, inexperienced lineup forced into action because of injuries. Now they have to maintain that success against one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Denard Robinson.
“The most recent guy we’ve probably faced like him was Pat White a few years ago at West Virginia,” Foster said. “I think he’s very similar to that guy. He’s a game-breaker. He’s a big-time athlete. He can beat you running the ball, he can beat you throwing the football. He’s just a dynamic football player, a dynamic athlete. And then he’s got some good skill guys around him to take the pressure off of him.
“He makes people miss in the hole. He jukes him and he’s off for a 40-yard touchdown. Those are things he does … and they’re using him the right way – quarterback sweeps, quarterback powers, quarterback zone play, quarterback draws. They’re doing everything. They’ve adapted to what they have and he’s done it very, very well.”
Then again, so is Foster’s defense.
Last year, Virginia Tech’s defense finished No. 52 in the country in total defense, allowing 361.5 yards per game. This year, the Hokies are No. 13 in total defense, allowing almost 50 fewer yards per game. Last year they were No. 26 in scoring defense. This year they’re No. 8, holding opponents to 17.2 points per game. After putting the No. 64 rushing defense on the field in 2010, the Hokies improved to No. 17 this year, allowing just 107.8 yards per game.
“There’s no question it was a heck of a job,” coach Frank Beamer said. “I think the people we lost, and then the people replacing them – you’ve got two true freshmen defensive tackles – that’s not the place you want a true freshman in there. You want some experience in there. And then I think (cornerback) Kyle Fuller had a tremendous year, but him being able to move around and play some different positions and come through, that made a difference. I think the guys we lost, who we lost, and then to play as well as we have defensively, the championship game was a tough game for us, but up until that point, we really played some fantastic football for what we’ve been through and the injuries we had on our defense.”
For almost the entire Wake Forest game Oct. 15, the Hokies were playing without four opening-day starters, including Hosley (hamstring), and Gayle (ankle), in addition to Hopkins and Gouveia-Winslow.
By the third quarter against Boston College a week later, Virginia Tech was missing those four, plus Taylor and Gouveia-Winslow’s backup, Alonzo Tweedy, who sprained his ankle. Two true freshmen — Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall — have taken over one of the defensive tackle positions on the two-deep. Two redshirt sophomores — Tariq Edwards and Telvion Clark — are holding down a linebacker spot.
“It all goes back to our players and our coaches,” Foster said. “We were a young group, and I’m proud of them. We had an expectation, we talked about how we wanted to get back and play the kind of defense we’re used to around here. We started that back in January. I’m proud of our kids that they stepped up and bought into that and knew that’s what we needed to get back to. I still think we’ve got a lot of room to grow, which is exciting, but then to have the injuries on top of that, and some key players, and to have some young guys step up at various times, it’s been fun to watch.”