- - Sunday, August 28, 2011

BLACKSBURG, Va. — The first time Antoine and Derrick Hopkins played on the same team, they ran around, mostly aimlessly, with a Richmond-area YMCA basketball squad nicknamed the Bulls. Antoine was about 7 or 8 years old, Derrick 5 or 6.

“He could never make a layup,” Antoine said.

“Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s right,” Derrick said, sitting next to his brother last week after Virginia Tech football practice.

“Wide open, he could not make a layup. The basket was like five feet tall.”

“I’d always cherry pick. Somebody would throw me the ball, and I’d miss it.”

“Hit the bottom of the rim,” Antoine chimed in.

“No, I got it over the rim, at least.”

“Nah, you hit the bottom of the rim, Derrick. I remember that.”

They both laughed and thought about how different Saturday’s season opener against Appalachian State will be. The Hopkins brothers — best friends, roommates and Highland Springs High graduates — play defensive tackle for the Hokies. Antoine is a fourth-year junior starting for the second season, Derrick a true sophomore starting for the first time.

In Tech head coach Frank Beamer’s 24 previous seasons, three sets of brothers started on the same side of the ball:

• In 1996, T.J. Washington was the right offensive tackle, Todd the left guard.

• In 2003, Jonathan and Kevin Lewis, of Varina, were the defensive tackles.

• In 2007 and 2008, Cam Martin was the whip outside linebacker, Orion a defensive end.

So Antoine and Derrick will be the second set of brothers to start side by side during the Beamer era.

“It’s going to be sweet,” Antoine said. “We’ve kind of been in this place before, but not on this stage. It’s going to be a big deal.”

After the YMCA basketball adventures, they didn’t play together in youth football, but started alongside each other during Antoine’s junior and senior seasons at Highland Springs. Though Derrick didn’t start last season at Tech, he played 169 snaps as a backup. Between that experience and their close relationship — their parents, Gary and Jackie, never stood for any fights — they share chemistry that they think will help.

“I trust him,” Derrick said. “And if you trust the person next to you, everything flows good.”

Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles raved about Derrick’s natural football ability from the minute he arrived last summer. He hoped Derrick’s relentless playing tempo would push Antoine to show a greater sense of urgency, especially in practice.

“I think he has,” Wiles said. “Now Antoine, he still bugs me. It’s his tempo. It’s his body language. That’s who he is, though. He’s a laid-back guy. At times, it does bother me, and he knows that. I want him to be more of an up-tempo guy. I think he can be a war daddy.”

Said Antoine: “I feel like I am moving a lot faster on a more consistent basis.”

Wiles wants game-changing plays — not just space clogging — from his tackles. Last season, Antoine had 6½ tackles for loss, including two sacks. Derrick had 1½ sacks — his only tackles for loss.

With teams spreading the field more, rather than just running up the middle, Wiles also needs the Hopkins brothers to demonstrate the type of athleticism that Derrick did in a preseason scrimmage. When reserve wide receiver Corey Fuller — one of Tech’s fastest players — tried to make a cut just past the line of scrimmage, Derrick sprinted to his right and pulled Fuller down by his ankles. “Big-time play,” Wiles said later.

Though Antoine’s and Derrick’s football personalities are slightly different, they have the same attitude about their living space, which is why Antoine wanted to share his apartment with Derrick. Neither likes too many guests in the house at once, so they aren’t inclined to host parties after games.

Before them, they still expect to get the usual text messages from their mom (“put God first and everything will fall in place”) and dad (“big players make big plays”).

The brothers’ routine might not change this year, but they know their prominent roles and shared last name mean more people will notice them than ever before.

“Just got to keep the smile on when the camera comes on your face,” Antoine said.

• Follow Darryl Slater’s Virginia Tech blog at vteffect.com

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