- - Friday, April 13, 2012

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech believes its defensive linemen can be giants. Or at least play like them.

Inspired by the New York Giants‘ Super Bowl-winning defense, which employed four defensive ends along the front line, the Hokies are experimenting with a smaller, faster defensive line in spring football practice.

Corey Marshall (Dinwiddie), Zack McCray and Justin Taylor are working at tackle and end in defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s new-look front.

“He’s seeing that dynamic in our football team,” Marshall said. “That we can be that explosive, that we can be that violent inside and not have to have a 300-pound guy in there every single time. I think that’s going to pay off big down the road.”

It’s already paying dividends this spring. While Tech deals with three injuries to its starting linebackers and breaks in a reshuffled secondary, the defensive line has been the most productive unit this month, at times dominating the scrimmages.

Wednesday night, with all-conference defensive ends J.R. Collins and James Gayle missing the scrimmage to tend to class work, Tech’s defense piled up 10 sacks in 66 plays. That came on the heels of last Saturday’s 11-sack effort in an 85-play scrimmage.

The defensive line will be on display again Saturday at Lane Stadium when the Hokies hold their final scheduled scrimmage before the April 21 spring game. Saturday’s workout is expected to feature more situational scrimmaging, such as goal-line and red-zone plays.

“We need to be better [this season],” Virginia Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles said of what he wants to see from this season’s defensive line. “That’s the expectation. I’ll be disappointed if we’re not. And I’ll be disappointed if we don’t have eight or nine guys and we can roll guys and keep people fresh.”

A year ago, the Hokies’ defensive line was beset by injuries, forcing junior defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins (Highland Springs) to play far more snaps per game than the coaches wanted.

“He got wore down as the year went on,” Wiles said.

But that negative did create one positive. Tech’s young defensive linemen, including Marshall and Luther Maddy, got the game experience they’ll need to be contributors this season.

The Hokies return Hopkins and his brother, Antoine, inside. Antoine Hopkins, a senior, missed the last nine games last season because of a knee injury and is sitting out spring practice.

Tech has Marshall and Maddy, both sophomores, behind them and Collins and Gayle at end.

Redshirt freshmen Dadi Nicolas and Kris Harley also are in the mix for playing time, creating plenty of competition this spring for spots on the Hokies’ two-deep roster.

“It’s a grind,” Marshall said. “Every spot you’ve got serious competition at. There’s no one spot where any one guy can say, ‘I’m good here. I can stop. I’ve arrived.’ I mean, we’re competing every day.”

And with the increased emphasis on putting more versatile players on the field, Wiles believes he’s increasing the depth at the position and the chance for productivity.

“You look at what everybody’s doing on offense,” Wiles said. “We see a little bit of quarterback under center. We see a whole lot of spread to run the ball. You need athletes that can make plays numbers to numbers, sideline to sideline and be able to run. We’re trying to get our best, fastest, most athletic guys and put them in a position to get on the field.”

Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell dubbed his team’s speed-heavy look “NASCAR.” And comparisons to the Super Bowl champs have helped the younger Hokies buy into some of the moves.

“We watched the Giants and that’s how they’re able to play,” McCray said. “We want to be able to move guys around and be able to put some faster guys on the field.”

Read more about the Hokies at VTeffect.com

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