There aren't a lot of concerns on Virginia Tech's defense, but the biggest one has been surrounding the defensive line. The Hokies have a very talented starting defensive line with Vinny Mihota and Trevon Hill at DE, and Ricky Walker and Tim Settle at DT; but entered this fall camp with concerns for depth along the defensive line.
At least publicly, it appears those concerns haven't been completely alleviated based on Justin Fuente's comments.
“I don’t know that there has been any leaps and bounds. I’d say that (Emmanuel) Belmar is a name that comes to mind in a positive light, he’s done a good job. He continues to improve, but we are still working hard to find some more guys who are formidable.” - Fuente on backup DEs (August 18th)
“I don’t know that anybody has stood out. Jimmie (Taylor) has worked in there and Jarrod Hewitt. Those two guys have had most of the reps in there. To me, those spots are far from certain. We need better play out of that whole group, backups too.” - Fuente on backup DTs (August 18th)
While it appears that the concerns about defensive line depth aren't as significant as they were a couple weeks ago, it's clear that the Hokies aren't where they want to be yet in this area especially at DT where the Hokies had Walker and Settle as their backups last year with Steve Sobczak (who didn't return this spring) fifth on the DT depth chart last season. With Walker and Settle now starting and Sobczak gone, the Hokies went from arguably the deepest group of DTs in the country to DT depth being a major question mark.
There has been some change along the depth chart at defensive tackle from this spring with Jimmie Taylor sliding inside and earning some of the backup reps alongside Jarrod Hewitt over Darius Fullwood, who was previously thought to be the #3 DT entering this fall.
However, it's clear that Fuente and the coaches are not satisfied with the current level of play with their backup DTs with Fuente being quite frank in stating how the Hokies "need better play out of that whole group, backups too." Fuente's frankness here shows the need for Hewitt, Taylor, Fullwood, Robert Porcher, and J'Bril Glaze to all continue to improve with the backup spots still being up for grabs.
Hewitt has been the one consistent guy in all of this as he has continued to maintain his spot as one of the Hokies' backup DTs as the 285-pound Floridian has appeared to benefit from redshirting last year. Hewitt seems likely to be the top backup DT for the Hokies this fall and showed in high school the talent to be a productive collegiate player as a two-time First Team 7A All-State player in Florida who had double-digit sacks in his junior and senior seasons.
Hewitt won't have the pressure of a starting role this season, but the Hokies will definitely be looking to Hewitt in particular to step up and be able to give guys like Tim Settle and Ricky Walker a break without causing much of a drop in productivity.
Jimmie Taylor spent the spring at DE due to Vinny Mihota and Trevon Hill being out due to injuries and Houshun Gaines missing the spring for non-injury related reasons. Taylor is undersized for a DT at 256 pounds and will need to add at least 15-20 pounds to have the size he needs to be productive, but Taylor has to be a surprise as it seemed unclear previously as to whether Taylor would be able to break through. Now, Taylor has passed at least Darius Fullwood and while he still needs to add size, it's clear that he's ready to earn some sort of role on this defensive line.
Despite Fuente mentioning Hewitt and Taylor specifically, guys like Darius Fullwood and Robert Porcher IV still have a chance to earn themselves a role in the two-deep though Porcher and J'Bril Glaze both seem more likely to end up redshirting this fall. Fuente's comments also make it clear that Fullwood hasn't had the best fall camp and has some work to do to get back into the two-deep especially with two younger guys now ahead of him on the depth chart.
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Concerns also still remain among the backup defensive ends, but one guy that has consistently received praise throughout fall camp from Justin Fuente has been Emmanuel Belmar. Belmar moved from linebacker to DE this spring and his move has definitely paid off this fall as while most people expected one of the three freshmen DEs to claim a spot in the two-deep rotation, it's been Belmar who has made a strong impression on the coaches and consistently received praise.
Belmar has had the benefit of having experience playing with his hand in the ground in high school that likely made this transition smoother this fall and has put him in position to be on the two-deep ahead of the Hokies' opening weekend showdown with West Virginia.
Houshun Gaines missed the spring due to non-injury related issues, but the North Carolina native returned to the Hokies this fall. Gaines was the one defensive lineman that most thought would make the two-deep for sure and while that still seems quite likely, Gaines still seems to have some work to do to maintain his spot as a backup DE.
“I’d say he has a chance to factor in as a backup defensive end. Put him in that group of those other guys that this team needs to continue to get better on a daily basis.” - Fuente on Houshun Gaines (August 18th)
While it's a safe bet still that Gaines will be one of the Hokies' backup DEs, it's clear that Gaines hasn't had as strong of a fall camp as hoped to this point. However, Gaines is still likely to be the Hokies' top backup DE especially after being in the two-deep last season along with having some experience from last season with 5 tackles and 0.5 sacks though it's clear that Fuente has allowed this to be an open competition with other young guys like Belmar and the trio of true freshmen.
The emergence of Belmar has also made it more difficult for that talented freshman trio of Zion DeBose, Nathan Proctor, and Tyjuan Garbutt to push for a backup spot this fall. While all three definitely have bright futures, at least two of these three seem likely to redshirt with DeBose being the most likely to play this fall due largely to DeBose being more physically developed as a DE along with him having a solid fall camp from all accounts.
At this point, Justin Fuente and the Hokies still have concerns about their defensive line depth with the depth along the DE appearing to be ahead of the DT due largely to the emergence of Emmaneul Belmar this fall along with the return of Houshun Gaines. Meanwhile, DT still is somewhat of a mess with Jarrod Hewitt appearing to be the only guy that has consistently proven he can be a backup DT in 2017 to this point based on what has changed from the spring to the fall.
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