Virginia Tech Football: Who Will Replace James Gayle in Starting Lineup in 2014?
The Virginia Tech football program is losing some incredibly productive stars to the NFL, and defensive end James Gayle’s absence will likely be felt the most acutely, but the Hokies do have some players who can help ease the blow.
Gayle never put up the biggest numbers for the Hokies—he finished with 22 sacks and 40.5 tackles for loss in his Tech career—but he was a physical freak that regularly occupied the full attention of opposing offensive tackles.
His draft stock isn’t the best right now, with scouts concerned about his size and projections placing him in the fifth-round range, but he meant a great deal to the Hokies and will be difficult to fully replace.
However, between some veterans on the defensive line and a few talented incoming freshmen, Bud Foster should be able to find a way to develop some worthy substitutes for Gayle next season.
Read on to learn about the players most likely to fill Gayle’s shoes at defensive end, presented in the order they’ll probably receive playing time.
Incoming freshman Vincent Mihota has the longest shot to get playing time in Gayle’s absence due to his youth, but he has the talent to see the field immediately.
He’s only rated as a 3-star recruit, but he’s a player attracted a lot of interest late in his recruitment period and even received an offer for Alabama.
But he turned Nick Saban down and is headed to Blacksburg as an early enrollee that has the potential to make an impact in spring practice and impress coaches quickly.
Scouts really like his first step and closing speed, and French of thekeyplay.com further breaks down his potential on the Hokies.
Foster has always loved to angle his right defensive ends wide and have them slant hard to the inside of the offensive tackle. In 2011, J.R. Collins had a huge start to the season tracking down runs from behind on hard inside stunts. Even though Mihota plays over the right tackle more often than not on film, I would imagine that he will play at the right defensive end spot for the Hokies. Although, I venture his size will be tempting for his coaches to utilize at stud end. You will remember, bigger defensive ends like John Engelberger had success playing out wide over the left tackle.
The biggest issue that could hold Mihota back is the possibility of him taking a redshirt year. He broke his foot and missed most of his senior season, meaning that Foster and defensive line coach Charley Wiles could decide to give more time to get back in playing shape.
However, the defensive end position is thin after Gayle’s departure, so he could get the chance to train with Tech’s staff and be ready to contribute right away.
Mihota probably has the best shot to fill Gayle’s shoes in the long term, but he could certainly get started early.
But there are some players on the roster with slightly more experience that could block him in the short term.
Ken Ekanem hasn’t really had a chance to make an impact on the field since arriving as a 4-star freshman back in 2011, but Gayle’s graduation means he’ll finally get a chance to really see the field.
He’s similar in size to other defensive linemen that Foster favored—like Gayle himself and the graduating J.R. Collins—but he’s only really gotten to play on special teams so far after taking a redshirt year.
Now that he’s had two years of seasoning in Foster’s system, he’s probably got a chance to get on the field now that the veterans in front of him are gone.
However, it’s got to be at least a little troubling that Ekanem so rarely got worked into the defensive line rotation. Gayle and Collins was certainly a dominant pair of starters, but Foster and Wiles have always tried to mix in young talent on the line when they can—a fact they demonstrated with both Gayle and Collins early in their respective careers.
But by all accounts, Ekanem does have excellent speed and could play a very similar role to the one Collins did as a run stopper and pass-rusher on the outside.
Still, one player who should be returning to the team should get precedence over Ekanem.
Corey Marshall has had an odd recent history with the Hokies, but he should be back in the mix at defensive end in 2014.
He missed the first two games of the 2013 season after leaving the team for mysterious “personal reasons” but returned shortly after and chose to use a redshirt year as a junior.
At the start of his career at Tech, he looked like he’d be a star, recording three sacks while playing in spot duty back in 2011. Then, depth concerns led Foster and Wiles to move him inside to defensive tackle in 2012, where he never looked comfortable.
He’s since been moved back to defensive end, playing on the scout team for the past year, and he should play a big role on the line going forward.
Marshall possess an excellent combination of size and quickness, and combined with his experience in Foster’s system, he should get a lot of the time on the field—so long as he’s worked out his personal issues, of course.
He’ll likely start at the other defensive end spot in place of Collins, but as Foster mixes and matches players along the line, he could spend some time in Gayle’s old position.
Instead, there’s one player who made a big impact in a limited role last year that should be viewed as Gayle’s direct successor.
Simply put, when Dadi Nicolas got on the field last year, he was electric.
He harassed Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage into submission with his three sacks against the Panthers, and he looked like a physical freak when playing against the run.
However, he was rarely used as a traditional defensive end. Instead, Foster started lining him up as a blitzing linebacker to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines.
This was particularly effective against Pittsburgh—since Foster had never tried this tactic before and Pitt’s offensive line was a mess in 2013—but once lines were able to just adjust to it, he wasn’t quite as effective.
Nonetheless, he demonstrated incredible athleticism when he started in place of the suspended Collins against Duke, but he still has a lot to learn about the nuances of the position.
As a blitzing whip linebacker, he rarely was forced into coverage, and he’ll be asked to do a fair bit of that even as a defensive lineman. However, he’s got speed in spades to keep up with receivers once he gets the hang of it.
He’s also a bit too prone to over-pursue and fail to rein in his speed against the run, another minor tweak he’ll be focusing on in spring practice.
But regardless of these small faults, he’s Gayle’s heir apparent.
He can be a dynamic playmaker for the Hokies and should be one of the biggest reasons the Hokies can overcome the departure of so many of their defensive stars.