ORLANDO, Fla. — Something was missing.
Virginia Tech's defense had the talent. Its defensive line and linebackers had the depth and the experience. The secondary had physical ability and size. Yet, for the first few weeks of the season, the vaunted unit seemed to be lacking something, junior linebacker Jack Tyler said.
"That first half of the season, we weren't playing that well because we didn't have much leadership," Tyler said Tuesday before the Hokies' football practice at the Citrus Bowl for Friday's Russell Athletic Bowl against Rutgers.
And that, Tyler said, is when Tech senior linebacker Bruce Taylor stepped up.
"Bruce kind of got started and made sure we were all doing what we were supposed to," Tyler said. "I think that's one of the biggest reasons we improved so much throughout the season."
Taylor is one of two senior starters on Tech's defense, a unit that began the year with tremendous hype but didn't round into form until the second half of the season. The other senior, defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins, isn't a naturally vocal personality, leaving Taylor to do most of the talking.
"You kind of know who the kids, who'll they'll follow and who they respect," Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "Bruce kind of took that role and built on it."
Taylor, who was voted a team captain last week, said it took him a little while to "ease" into the role.
"When I've been here, it's never been just one guy," Taylor said of past defensive leadership. "It's always been a group of guys. And so the character of our team this year was a little different."
But teammates and coaches said Taylor was a natural fit for the responsibility, someone who commands respect both by his words and his actions.
"He's done a great job all year of speaking up when we needed someone to talk," junior cornerback Antone Exum said. "I know he was probably sometimes like, 'Man, is anyone else going to talk?' I tried to help him sometimes. But I think he knew that was the situation we had coming in this year."
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster said he thinks Taylor's teammates responded to his honest and unbridled passion for the game.
"It wasn't a front. It was the real thing," Foster said. "And I think everybody saw that."
Never was that more obvious than at the Pittsburgh game. Taylor's grandmother, who helped raise him, died during the week, but Taylor made the trip back from Georgia by himself to be with the team at Pitt. He made a season-high 11 tackles in the loss to the Panthers.
It also helped his leadership credibility that Taylor was one of the team's most consistent performers on the field down the stretch.
Going into Friday's bowl game, Taylor is third on the team in tackles with 65, third in tackles for loss with nine and leads the Hokies with 5 ½ sacks.
With Tech (6-6) needing to win its final two games of the regular season to become bowl eligible for the 20th straight season, Taylor recorded eight tackles in the next-to-last outing, a road win over Boston College.
"If you're not getting it done on the field, we're not trying to hear what you've got to say," junior defensive end James Gayle said. "He's definitely a guy who can back up his talk."
This week is Taylor's last leading the Tech defense, though he said he's trying not to get caught up in thinking about Friday being his final college game.
"I want to get the win for the team. Forget about me," Taylor said. "It's been a long, tough year. If we can get this win and finish the year with a winning record, that's all that really matters."
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