Virginia Tech has led the nation in scoring defense and/or total defense three times under coordinator Bud Foster. And with nine starters returning, this could be another benchmark year.
So what have been the common threads linking those great defenses, and might the 2012 group possess similar traits?
Andy Bitter, who covers the Hokies for the Roanoke Times and Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, asked Foster that first question as we stood in a small group Saturday inside Lane Stadium.
“A lot of it starts out with great corner play because we put our guys on an island sometimes,” he said. “We’ve been really good on the defensive line and had depth, so we could rotate people in, and I think that’s going to be one of our strengths (this season) if we can keep people healthy. …
“Having good ends. That’s kind of been our deal, having guys who can rush the passer, who you can turn loose to create some havoc.”
Foster’s recipe especially applies to his 1999 group, which led the nation in scoring defense and was third in total defense. Ends Corey Moore (first team) and John Engelberger (second team) were All-Americans, and Moore was the national Defensive Player of the Year.
Not coincidentally, the Hokies had an outrageous 58 sacks, a Big East-record 17 by Moore, and limited opponents to a 25-percent conversion rate on third down. Moreover, cornerback Anthony Midget was All-Big East.
The 2005 defense ranked first in yards allowed and second in points allowed. Cornerback Jimmy Williams was a first-team All-American, end Darryl Tapp second-team.
One year later, Tech led the country in both scoring defense and total defense. Brandon Flowers and Macho Harris were NFL-bound corners, Chris Ellis an outstanding end, and Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi arguably the best linebacker tandem in program history.
Foster is quick to note that the proliferation of spread offenses makes defense much more challenging than in 2006 and earlier. But he understands the optimism surrounding this bunch.
“I think we have a chance to have two of the better corners (Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum) in the (ACC),” Foster said. “I think our front could be as good as anybody in the country. We just have to stay healthy.”
Indeed, with James Gayle, J.R. Collins, Derrick Hopkins, Luther Maddy, Antoine Hopkins, Corey Marshall, Zack McCray and Tyrel Wilson, the Hokies could rotate eight linemen. Redshirt freshman Kris Harley is capable as well.
Gayle isn’t yet in Moore’s league, and may never be. But he’s only a junior, and at 6-foot-4, 269 pounds, he has the prototype size the 6-foot, 212-pound Moore lacked. He appears poised to become a dominant pass-rusher off the edge.
The sure-tackling Fuller is the complete package, effective in coverage, run support and blitzing. Derrick Hopkins and Maddy could be immovable inside at tackle.
Not to suggest there are not questions/issues. Foster is not comfortable with his reserves at corner after Donaldven Manning; linebacker Bruce Taylor, second-team All-ACC in 2010, is not yet in game shape after missing half of last season and all of spring practice with a foot injury; safeties Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett are new to their positions.
“We’ll find out at the end of the year,” Foster said of how good this defense can be. “I like this group, though. … I let them know what the tradition is and what our expectations are here. To be a championship-caliber football team, you have to play great defense.”
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