Just as they do every Monday morning, Virginia Tech's players gathered at 6:45 in the football offices to review film from the previous game.
After last Saturday's 21-16 loss to James Madison, some of Tech's defensive players may have been expecting the inevitable tongue-lashing from defensive coordinator Bud Foster. While it wouldn't have been an unjustified response from Foster considering the number of missed tackles and critical errors during the game, it wasn't what they received.
He didn't rant and rave — much. He kept the defense together to watch film, instead of splitting it up into position groups with position coaches leading film sessions, as is customary. Though his patience is being tried by this young group, Foster knows it's important to remain as tolerant as possible.
"It's just going to take some time, I think," Foster said. "You've got young kids playing a high-level game, a high-skill game against good competition every week and they've got to perform. I think you're going to see them get better. I hope so. If not, we've got to find some guys."
There's the main issue — finding some guys. Tech, which Saturday will host East Carolina (2-0) and a Pirates offense that's 18th in the nation with an average of 482 yards per game, doesn't have many options to explore.
"I think one of the issues is we'd like for some backups to come along," Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "I think when you're playing one group on defense and one group on offense, and I'm talking about the offensive line [where five starters have played every snap in the first two games], we want some backups to come along and help us."
Just last season, Tech (0-2) was brimming with depth on the defensive side. At outside linebacker, leading tackler Cody Grimm was backed up by Cam Martin, a regular starter in 2007 and '08. Dorian Porch started nine games at strong safety, and experienced Davon Morgan started four. Linebacker Lyndell Gibson started the last five games on the heels of Jake Johnson, who started the first eight games.
At the defensive end spots, starters Jason Worilds and Nekos Brown were followed by capable backups Chris Drager and Steven Friday, forming the usual four-man end rotation defensive line coach Charley Wiles prefers to utilize. At defensive tackle, Demetrius Taylor was a productive backup and part-time starter behind John Graves and Cordarrow Thompson.
Barquell Rivers finished second in tackles. Though he didn't have an experienced backup behind him, he was solid enough to keep the starting middle linebacker job nailed down all season. Of course, Rivers is still recovering from an offseason torn quadriceps tendon.
This season, Tech not only features seven new starters on defense, but also a plethora of young players in backup roles. Heading into the ECU game, seven of Tech's No. 2 jobs on defense are manned by freshmen or redshirt freshmen.
"For coach Foster, it might be a little frustrating to know that if one of us messes up, he doesn't really have a guy behind us right now that he might be able to trust like he's had in past years," said linebacker Bruce Taylor, a first-year starter who was responsible for key missed tackles on 71 and 77-yard touchdowns against Boise State and JMU, respectively. "Guys that he's been able to rotate, and when a guy's tired to be able to get him a (rest)."
The situation at outside linebacker, where sophomore Jeron Gouveia-Winslow is in his first season as a starter, provides a perfect example of just how thin the Hokies are on defense.
Tech's coaches use a specific point-based grading system to evaluate players after games. Gouveia-Winslow received a plus-11 grade after the Boise State game, a strong score for a first-time starter. Against JMU, he had five missed tackles and graded minus-11. With Morgan pulling double-duty as both the starting strong safety and No. 2 outside linebacker due to injuries at outside linebacker, Foster doesn't have many options behind Gouveia-Winslow.
Drager, a first-year starter who suffered a knee injury against Boise State, may return to start against ECU after sitting out the JMU game. Other than him, no other defensive personnel changes are expected, which means Foster is forced to endure the growing pains for now.
"This is a rebuilding year," Foster said. "We've got a bunch of young guys that haven't played a college football snap. Some guys have played two games. They've still got a lot of growing … to experience as far as plays and reads and those types of things. So, yeah, we're probably about where I thought we'd be. I'd like us to be a little sharper on some things."