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Virginia Tech defense resilient despite injuries to key players

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BLACKSBURG, Va. — Derrick Hopkins is not one to make bold proclamations. Virginia Tech's sophomore defensive tackle from Highland Springs High is a soft-spoken young man who rarely talks at length when asked questions during media interviews.

On Tuesday, he considered this query: Does he wonder what the breaking point is for this injury-riddled Tech defense? A day earlier, the Hokies announced that inside linebacker Bruce Taylor was done for the season because of a mid-foot sprain, the same injury that eliminated outside linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow for the year.

The Hokies in the past four games have lost three defensive starters to season-ending injuries, and every day, Hopkins gets to see the first one who went down: his older brother and roommate, Antoine, who hurt his knee. So Derrick must wonder just how many more injuries the defense can take before the absences show up in the results.

"No, not at all," he said without hesitating. "If a person goes down, the next person's got to be able to step up. We're talented enough to be able to do that."

They demonstrated as much in the past two games — wins over Wake Forest and Boston College. The Hokies held Wake to 320 yards and Boston College to 272.

For almost the entire Wake game, the Hokies didn't have four opening-day defensive starters — cornerback Jayron Hosley (hamstring) and end James Gayle (ankle), in addition to Hopkins and Gouveia-Winslow. By the third quarter against Boston College, Tech was missing those four, plus Taylor and Alonzo Tweedy, Gouveia-Winslow's replacement, who sprained his ankle.

Hosley and Gayle will return for today's game at Duke. But Tweedy is out, so the Hokies must rely on third-string redshirt freshman Nick Dew when they're not playing their nickel package. He hadn't played a defensive snap before the Boston College game.

Missing three opening-day defensive starters and Tweedy probably won't hurt the Hokies as much today as it could in their next game — Nov. 10 at Georgia Tech, which uses a tricky, option-based offense that has given the Hokies and plenty of other teams fits in recent years.

Duke might average 386.9 yards, but it gained 335 and 289 against its two most talented opponents — Stanford and Florida State, which beat the Blue Devils 44-14 and 41-16.

Similarly, Wake's offense is sputtering after a fast start. The Demon Deacons were averaging 416.2 yards entering the Virginia Tech game. After the Hokies limited them, they gained just 305 yards in last week's 24-23 win over Duke. Wake was missing tailback Josh Harris (hamstring) for both games. And Boston College's offense is putrid, averaging 314.7 yards per game, No. 105 nationally.

But so far, Tech's short-handed defense is doing what it needs to, even if the opposing offenses aren't imposing. The Hokies rank No. 13 nationally in total defense (294.9 yards allowed per game) and No. 10 in scoring defense (16.1 points). Last season, they ranked No. 52 (361.5 yards) and No. 26 (20.6 points). That ended a dominant run in which Tech finished in at least the top 12 nationally in both categories every season from 2004-09.

Though the defense struggled at times last season, the Hokies closed the regular season with a five-game stretch during which they allowed seven, 21, 10, 17 and seven points.

"We're kind of a resilient group right now," said defensive coordinator Bud Foster. "We were last year, and I think last year kind of showed that (if) you hang in there and play for 60 minutes, good things will happen. And that's what we're banking on right now."

• Read Darryl Slater's Virginia Tech blog at VTeffect.com

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