Just wanted to get something quick up here about Virginia Tech inside linebacker Bruce Taylor, and then we’ll add to it with some comments later from defensive coordinator Bud Foster, about how the Hokies plan to replace Taylor.
First, though, a brief injury update: Cornerback Jayron Hosley (hamstring) and James Gayle (ankle) were in a blue jerseys (limited participation) at tonight’s practice. Whip outside linebacker Alonzo Tweedy (ankle) did not practice.
Tweedy’s injury is the freshest among those three defensive starters. He got hurt Saturday against Boston College. Hosley missed that game after tweaking his hamstring the previous week at Wake Forest. Gayle has essentially missed the past three games after getting hurt early against Miami. He tried to play against Boston College, but couldn’t.
Trainer Mike Goforth is hopeful that all three players will be able to go on Saturday at Duke. The Hokies are already without three defensive starters for the rest of the season – Taylor being the third. And all three of those starters are in the front seven – an issue for the Hokies’ next game after Duke, Nov. 10 at Georgia Tech, which uses a tricky, option-based rushing attack that has given the Hokies problems in recent years.
That game could end up once again being the de facto championship game for the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Taylor’s mid right foot sprain, which will require surgery next week, makes it three defensive starters lost to season-ending injuries in the span of four games. Before Taylor limped off the practice field tonight, while wearing a protective boot, he took a few minutes to talk about his injury and where he and the Hokies go from here.
The injury happened in the third quarter Saturday. He had never hurt his foot before – his previous injuries were mainly to his shoulder – so he didn’t think the injury was that severe.
“I didn’t think it was that bad until I tried to play the next play and it wouldn’t move,” he said. “Somebody fell on it, like the pile kind of landed on me. My foot was already turned in a funky position, and that on top of a few bodies landing on it didn’t help. I didn’t think nothing of it, because I tried to play the next play.”
An MRI Sunday confirmed Tech’s worst fears about Taylor’s foot, but he didn’t seem too down tonight.
“It hasn’t really hit me,” he said. “It never does until I actually miss a game. I’m fine right now. I was being optimistic [after the game] that I was going to be fine. It didn’t really hit me until the next morning when I got the results that obviously it’s not fine.”
Fifth-year senior Barquell Rivers likely will be Taylor’s primary replacement, with sophomore Jack Tyler probably seeing action as well, because Rivers and Foster aren’t sure if he is in good enough shape to play an entire game. Rivers started at the mike linebacker spot in 2009, then suffered a serious quad tendon tear in the offseason and missed all of last season, when Taylor started for the first time.
Tyler is the least experienced of the three mikes, but he is not completely green. When Taylor got hurt in the ACC championship game last year, Tyler went in. And when Taylor had to slide to the backer spot to replace the injured Lyndell Gibson in the Orange Bowl, Tyler started and played the entire game at mike.
What does Taylor think of Rivers’ readiness at this point?
“Watching him today, he looked good,” Taylor said. “I think a big step for him is just trusting that knee, because he hasn’t played that much until last game [44 snaps in three games before the Boston College game, which he played 17 snaps, compared to one for Tyler]. The biggest thing for him is just getting back into game shape, which is going to take a little time.
“If any position could afford an injury, it’s the linebacker position, because we’re so deep at linebacker. The guys behind me, they could be starters at other schools. This injury, it sucks for me more than I feel like it does [for] the team.”
Rivers is one of Tech’s most knowledgeable players, because he’s been around the program for so long and has started. That can make up for physical limitations, and even though he hasn’t played much this season, his teammates recognize his wisdom.
“He’s a guy that a lot of respect is shown to, just because of what he’s been through and what he’s had to come from to get back to where he’s at now,” Taylor said. “People always root for a guy like that. Him being a senior, I feel like people will start to look up to him more, especially as the season goes on and he’s playing more.”
Taylor was Tech’s leading tackler (53) and was third in tackles for loss (seven), second in sacks (five) and first in quarterback hurries (16). As a fourth-year junior who is starting (and excelling) for the second straight year – he led the team in tackles and tackles for loss last year, and was second in sacks – he seemed like a legit candidate to at least consider leaving early for the NFL.
But he wasn’t planning on doing that, and definitely won’t now, he said.
“I was leaning toward coming back in the first place, and this kind of solidifies that for me,” he said. “I don’t feel like I have enough games under my belt for me to make that jump. Anybody can put their neck out there. How they fare is different.
“The most important thing for me, though, is getting my degree. I’m just working on that. I graduate in the spring, and then next year I’ll come back and I can be focused more on football and getting my body right for the next level. I don’t want to put a halfway finished piece [on display] when I go for my audition. I want to be 100 percent. I was leaning toward staying already.”
Foster said he isn’t sure yet how he’ll split the snaps at mike, but there’s a good chance Tyler plays a bunch if Duke happens to run a lot of plays.
“If we’re playing a lot of snaps, we need to split it,” Foster said. “I don’t know what kind of shape Barquell is in when it’s all said and done. I’m going to demand that he practice hard this week just to get himself in game shape. We talked about that.”
Foster was pleased with what he saw in 17 snaps from Rivers against Boston College.
“I was going to get Jack some snaps,” Foster said. “He got one snap, then we caused a fumble. Offensively, we held onto the ball after that. I’ve been practicing Jack. He’s been alternating with Barquell [for second-string practice reps] just because of something like this. It’s unfortunate for Bruce and unfortunate for us, because he was having an all-star kind of season, like he played last year. I even thought he was a notch better.
“But that’s the nature of the game. We’ve just got to keep forging ahead. It’s a great opportunity for Barquell. I’m really proud of him and how he’s come back. I don’t know if he’s got any football afterwards, but this can be his shining moment, so to speak, to get back and do some special things. And that’s what I’m hoping for.”
Not only are three defensive starters done for the year, but so is backup tackle Kwamaine Battle. And Gayle has missed a good chunk of the season. Hosley less so, but he essentially hasn’t played in two games.
“I’m trying to think if we’ve ever had a year like this in my time here, and I can’t think of that, especially when you lose some key guys,” Foster said.
Foster is hoping this defense – which is still ranked No. 13 nationally in yards allowed and No. 10 in points – takes a lesson from last year, when the defense improved as the year went along.
“We’re kind of a resilient group right now,” Foster said. “We were last year, and I think last year kind of showed that you hang in there and play for 60 minutes, good things will happen. And that’s what we’re banking on right now.”
Some other quick hitters from Foster …
** The No. 3 mike and backer is redshirt freshman Chase Williams, who Foster has liked since he got on campus in January 2010, after graduating high school early.
“He knows the backer spot,” Foster said. “He’s been practicing that, alternating with Telvion [Clark] a little bit in there. Then I want him to keep an eye on the mike because that’s probably his most natural position anyway when it’s all said and done.
“I think he’s got a chance to be a good one for us, but he’s going to kind of work with the backers still. But then I’ll throw him in there, get him some reps at mike, too. It’s hard right now. I want to make sure I get Jack and Barquell all the reps that they need to be able to get out and perform.”
** Foster raved about Clark, the No. 2 backer, during the preseason. But he hasn’t played on defense in the past three games, after playing 10 snaps against Clemson, 10 against Marshall and 17 against Appalachian State. He hasn’t played at all in the past two games – not even on special teams.
“He played early and was playing well,” Foster said. “Then he got kind of a high-ankle sprain. He really had a hard time recovering from that thing. He just wasn’t running very well.”
** Duke’s scheme means Tech will play a lot of nickel, and Foster is thinking about maybe even playing nickel in some non-nickel situations if Tweedy isn’t able to go and Tech has to once again dip down to third-string whip Nick Dew, a redshirt freshman.
“[Dew] kind of came in there [against Boston College] and was all over the place, but hopefully, he’ll be better this week,” Foster said. “I tried to do some things with Dew the other day, but he didn’t execute. We had to kind of adjust a little bit.”
Foster said the whip spot is “a concern right now. Probably the thing we’ll do is just stay with nickel.” In the nickel, field cornerback Kyle Fuller takes the whip’s place. Foster said Fuller is “playing at a high level right now, too. He knows that [whip/nickel] position. We’ve brought him in more pressures this year.
“We talked about even a guy like Telvion Clark or somebody that maybe could play [the whip/nickel spot], but even though whip and backer are similar in a lot of senses, there are a lot of differences.”
** The bottom line is, Foster has some contingency plans in place if Dew isn’t ready (and he would only play if Tweedy doesn’t go, of course).
“We’re going to find out,” Foster said of Dew’s readiness. “He’s right now repping [with the first team]. We don’t have a choice. We’ll play him with certain personnel groupings, obviously. Then we’ll play our nickel package with certain personnel groupings.”
But Foster clarified that the defensive coaches have talked about expanding the nickel package and playing in situations where they normally wouldn’t.
“It kind of depends on how [Dew] plays, and hopefully, we can get Tweedy back,” he said.
Foster said Duke plays 85 percent 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), and that’s a nickel situation anyway. So look for a lot of nickel.
“From a personnel standpoint, it’s a little easier week for us [to be down to the third-string whip] than if we were going to have to play Miami or somebody like that,” he said.
** The first of the defensive starters to go down was Hopkins, and Foster is happy with how true freshmen Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall are coming along as his replacements.
“I’m pleased with the direction we’re going with those guys and how they’re playing,” Foster said. “Their technique and fundamentals have gotten better. They both have a nose for the football, but they need to clean up some of the little things.”