VT front 7 enters spring with questions

Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster has spoiled Hokies fans with his consistent ability to reload.

Now he has to do it again.

While the bulk of the questions this offseason have centered around the Hokies’ new starting quarterback and the persistent offensive woes, the defensive holes throughout the front seven can’t be ignored. Virginia Tech has to replace three starters on the defensive line and two linebackers, including Jack Tyler, who was the team’s leading tackler in each of the past two seasons. One of the biggest areas of concern is on the defensive line, where tackle Derrick Hopkins and ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins have to be replaced. The defensive tackle position is thin, and the pre-spring depth chart, which was released last week, features four positions (defensive tackle, defensive end and two linebacker spots) that are wide open.

While those within the program remain confident that there is enough talent on the roster to plug the gaps, Virginia Tech’s young defense enters this spring with much to prove.

“When you look at the caliber of players, we’ve got that,” said head coach Frank Beamer. “Now it’s just a matter of getting those guys experience. If you didn’t have the first part -- if you didn’t have good players -- I think you’d really be concerned, but now it’s just a matter of how fast we can get ‘em to where they can perform on a consistent basis. We’re racing time a little bit right now.”

Here’s what the Hokies do know: Senior defensive tackle Luther Maddy and junior end Dadi Nicolas are the expected leaders up front. Maddy is the most experienced returning lineman, as he started every game last season and was fifth on the team in tackles (55) and led the Hokies in sacks (6.5). With the exception of Maddy, who has 29 career starts and is coming off his best season, the rest of the returning linemen have a combined total of six starts -- and tackle Corey Marshall has five of them.

Marshall missed the first two games of last season after leaving the team in the preseason for personal reasons and then redshirted while playing defensive end for the scout team. He is versatile enough to play both end and tackle but will start the spring inside, where Beamer said the coaches prefer him because his speed can cause matchup problems.

“He’s really very good in everything he’s done since he’s been back, and he’s quite an athletic guy,” Beamer said. “You put him inside, and I think he has the ability to play outside at defensive end and probably will do some of that this spring. But he really can make a difference.”

At linebacker, the coaching staff is looking for senior Chase Williams to emerge as a difference-maker, too, in his first season as a starter. The bulk of Williams’ snaps in 2013 came on special teams, but this spring he’s next in line to take over for Tyler.

“I think he’s ready to step into that position,” Beamer said. “All indications, how he’s worked, and we feel he’s ready to be that guy who can be a good linebacker and be a leader over there on the defense. It’s his time, so I think he’s ready to take advantage of it.”

The next step this spring is finding out who else is ready on defense.