Virginia Tech ushering in new talent at linebacker

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

It wasn't until his junior and senior year in high school that Virginia Tech linebacker Jake Johnson started paying close attention to college football and became aware of the Hokies' nationally known tradition of dominant defenses.

Now, as a sophomore with the opportunity to start for Virginia Tech this fall, Johnson is working to uphold that standard and he's been in the film room watching the players he wants to emulate -- former Hokies like Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi.

"There have been so many great linebackers here," Johnson said. "All Americans, all-ACC. The reputation of our linebackers here is great, and I want to be the next great one. I don't want to be the year where we're just OK."

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster certainly hasn't settled for 'just OK' defenses in the past, and knows his players will have to do their part if the Hokies are going to contend for the national title. Virginia Tech has some reloading to do, though, in its linebacking corps after the departures of Brett Warren and Purnell Sturdivant -- the team's top two leading tacklers from 2008. Johnson and redshirt sophomore Barquell Rivers are the frontrunners to take over, but right now their potential far outweighs their experience.

"I think we look good, though," said Cody Grimm, who returns as the leading tackler with 71, and had 7.5 sacks, two interceptions and 14 tackles for losses last year. "Barquell, obviously he played in the bowl game and he's a real strong kid. He's a good player, sure tackler, and then Jake Johnson has been doing a really good job as well. He's still young. He picked up a bunch of stuff in the spring. Once he started knowing it, he got a lot better. Both of them are really fast and strong."

How fast? Grimm said Rivers and Johnson ran around a 4.62 in their last 40-yard dash times. Rivers, who had been in on just 28 defensive plays before earning his first career start in the Orange Bowl at the expense of the injured Warren, is now the leading candidate to take over at Mike linebacker. Rivers made a name for himself in the bowl game when he stopped Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike on fourth and goal from the 1-yard line and ended the Bearcats last chance at a comeback.

"Barquell, he knows everything right now," Johnson said. "He's like a coach out there."

That's exactly what Johnson said he wants to be by the time the Alabama game rolls around. Johnson said he is studying not only his position, but also what the defensive linemen and other linebackers are doing. He's gotten a lot of help from the two veteran linebackers, Grimm and Cam Martin, both fifth-year seniors who combined to play all but nine plays at the position. Their rotating schedule should stay the same, as long as Martin heals properly from knee surgery he had after the Orange Bowl.

"I just try to lead by example," Grimm said. "Take care of my job, and if something were to happen, like if Barquell has a bad play try to get him up, but he's a pretty calm player. He was calm in the bowl game. He knows what he's doing. He'll get all the first team reps. Coach Foster will definitely have him and Jake ready to go."