Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
With Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards manning Tech’s two linebacker spots, the staff hardly had to give the area a second thought.
Both had proven records of performance and started the lion’s share of games at the two positions over the last three years.
However, with both leaving Blacksburg, the team is turning to two unknowns at the positions in Chase Williams and Deon Clarke.
Williams will step into Tyler’s shoes at the “Mike” linebacker spot and will be primarily charged with quarterbacking the defense while being a sure tackler.
Tyler excelled at the role, but how Williams will fare is anyone’s guess. He looked competent, if relatively unspectacular in spring practice, yet coaches never wavered from keeping him in the starting role.
He does have five years of experience on campus at this point, but some thought he’d at least be pushed by redshirt freshman Andrew Motuapuaka, yet it was never really a competition.
Clarke will step into Edwards’ old “Backer” position and will be called upon to rush the passer with some regularity as well as drop into coverage.
By all accounts, Clarke has the speed and strength to accomplish both goals. He hasn’t seen the field much beyond special teams due to off-the-field issues, but coaches were effusive in their praise of him this spring.
“Deon is playing fast. Before (this spring), it was a little bit (of missed) assignments. Not so much of that anymore,” Beamer told Norm Wood of the Daily Press.
He started the spring by competing with redshirt sophomore Dahman McKinnon, and he is still listed as a co-starter with him on the depth chart, but it seems like a very sure bet he’ll stick as the starter.
But the uncertainty doesn’t end with the two new starters.
The defense will return redshirt junior Ronny Vandyke to the starting “Whip” linebacker position after he missed the entirety of the 2013 season with a shoulder injury, and it’s anyone’s guess how he’ll play.
Last year, defensive coordinator Bud Foster adapted to Vandyke’s absence by sparsely using a third linebacker at all.
He’d occasionally play backups like Josh Trimble or Derek DiNardo when he really wanted to focus on stopping the run, but neither had the speed to play in coverage the way the Whip traditionally does.
Instead, he would sub in Kyle Fuller to give the position added speed and toughness—especially against Georgia Tech’s option attack—or he’d simply play nickel corner Kendall Fuller as a de facto starter.
Now, he has Vandyke back and the position seems to be back in play. He seemed poised for a breakout year in 2013 after flashing some impressive speed as a freshman in 2012.
He only had 21 total tackles and fumble recovery, but he really seemed to pick up the speed of the game as the year wore on.
After the start of the team’s spring practice in 2013, this is what Foster had to say about Vandyke’s development, per Andy Bitter of the Virginian-Pilot:
Ronny was a freshman. And he kind of played like a freshman at times, he was so robotic. He didn’t want to make a mistake. It was more like he was playing to do the right thing rather than: let’s do the right thing, but let’s go out and be a football player. Know what I mean? And I think he did that later on in the season. Not so robotic, so to speak. Some guys can be that way when they’re young. And that goes back to, more than anything, experience. Guys that have seen it and seen it and seen it and know when to bend or redirect. Ronny was kind of very segmented, robotic compared to what I know he can do. And I’m expecting big things from him this spring.
Vandyke missed this year’s spring ball while continuing to recover from the injury, which isn’t necessarily a great sign, but he seems to be fully healthy now.
While the shoulder injury will certainly impact his tackling ability, fans can be thankful that Vandyke didn’t hurt his knees and compromise his most valuable asset—speed.
This by far the most uncertainty the Hokies have had at linebacker in years, and it will certainly be a challenge for Beamer and Foster to develop their new starters at the position.