2002 Spring Football Outlook
Hokies seeking to settle key issues
March 21, 2002

THE DEFENSE

This shapes up to be one of Coach Bud Foster's most challenging springs as defensive coordinator. Gone from last year's highly-ranked defense are all five tackles who lettered, along with the top three inside linebackers and two starting members of the secondary.

The key losses include starting tackles Chad Beasley and David Pugh, who anchored the defensive line the past three seasons, and linebacker Ben Taylor, the Hokies' leading tackler in 2000 and 2001. The Hokies will also miss mike linebackers Jake Houseright and Brian Welch, rover Kevin McCadam and cornerback Larry Austin.

"Obviously there are some holes to fill," says Foster. "We lost some good players right up the middle of our defense at our tackle spots and at linebacker. We also have to find a rover - and that will be another key issue.

"We have some promising, young prospects, but now we have to get them understanding the defense and understanding their positions. That is going to be our focus this spring."

The defense will have its share of strong points. There is plenty of talent and outstanding depth at both end positions, where senior Lamar Cobb and juniors Jim Davis, Cols Colas and Nathaniel Adibi all saw starting time last season. There is also experience and excellent ability at cornerback and free safety where returning starters Ronyell Whitaker and Willie Pile will be expected to play leadership roles.

With only six seniors on the defensive depth chart, Foster will be looking for leaders during the spring. "We would like everybody to be a leader with their work ethic," he says. "But I'm hoping there will be some natural leaders who will rise to the occasion. With such a small senior class, sometimes those leaders may not be seniors."

As always, Foster will be looking for the defense to improve in every area during the spring, even the areas in which it is strong.

"We have high expectations here, that is something that is not going to change," Foster admits. "Understanding those expectations and developing a great work ethic are two of our main goals. We want to work to improve and give great effort every day.

"Because of the mixture of experience and youth on this defense, we need to grow and develop as a unit," he says. "If this group is willing to make the commitment and work together to be successful, I like our chances."

Defensive Line
Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles finds himself heading into spring practice with mixed emotions and for good reason.

Wiles welcomes back five lettermen at defensive end, including four who have seen extensive playing time and starting duty. At the same time, he will begin the spring with just two players who have seen any action on the collegiate level at the defensive tackle positions. The Hokies' top five defensive tackles in 2001 were all seniors.

"I'm certainly encouraged by the depth and the experience we have coming back at the end positions," Wiles says. "I'm excited that we have competition there. That is going to make everybody better.

"Obviously, losing the kids and the depth that we did at defensive tackle, makes that position a priority," he adds. "It will be a big goal to develop some depth in there and find four or five players we can depend on to help us win games. It may be that a couple of guys we have coming in this fall could be a part of that, too."

The returnees at end include redshirt junior Nathaniel Adibi, who has played in 24 games, 21 as a starter; senior Lamar Cobb, who has played in 28 games, 20 as a starter; redshirt junior Cols Colas who has played in 22 games, four as a starter; and junior Jim Davis, who has played in 21 games, three as a starter. Last season, those four players combined for 49 quarterback hurries, 25 tackles for loss and 11 of the Hokies' 30 sacks. Also back is redshirt sophomore Jason Lallis who saw action at end in seven games during the 2001 season.

Wiles plans to take a look at Adibi at the stud end position this spring in an effort to get him and Davis on the field at the same time on occasion. Adibi (6-3, 254) worked at the end position as a sophomore, registering 41 tackles, 15 hurries and a sack. He earned Iron Hokie honors in February, posting a 400-pound bench press and running a 4.55 forty.

Colas (6-0, 239) is expected to provide a strong challenge for Adibi at the stud position. The former high school running back has shown steady improvement as a defensive player. His explosive speed and power - 4.41 forty and 390 bench press - make him tough to handle on the corner. Colas started the Hokies' last four games last fall and led the team in quarterback hurries with 17. He also contributed 37 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 10 total tackles for loss.

"A guy who really showed up a whole lot when looking at last year's film was Cols," Wiles says. "He was very productive. He has really come miles and he is right on the verge of becoming a really good player. I'm really excited about him."

Davis heads into the spring as the leading candidate to start at the end position, with Cobb and Lallis battling for their share of playing time. Davis has been among the team's leaders in sacks each of his first two seasons. He finished third as a freshman in 2000 with 3.5 and was tied for the team lead this past fall with 4.5. At 6-3, 251 pounds, Davis has proved he has all the skills to be outstanding. He finished the 2001 season with 38 tackles, including eight behind the line.

Cobb (6-1, 223) contributed 46 total tackles in '01, including two sacks. He brings outstanding experience and good athleticism to the position. Lallis (6-0, 250) saw increased playing time at end as the 2001 season progressed, including 45 snaps over the final three regular-season games. He finished with 15 tackles and a sack. It is also possible that he could get some work at defensive tackle at some point during the spring.

One of the coaching staff's best moves during the fall was the decision to redshirt tackle Kevin Lewis (6-1, 281). Lewis saw action during eight games as a true freshman in 2000 and showed an outstanding ability to make plays. With five senior tackles on the 2001 roster, the Tech staff decided the best way to fully utilize Lewis' talents would be to hold him out a year and let him return with the opportunity to be a three-year starter. The move could also give Lewis the chance to play side-by-side with his younger brother Jonathan, who is one of several highly-regarded defensive line prospects in the Hokies' 2002 recruiting class.

"The decision to redshirt Kevin has really worked out well," Wiles says. "Now, he has three years to play and one of those starting defensive tackle jobs is his to lose."

Wiles will start off at the other tackle position with Mark Costen, the only returning tackle who saw any action last season. Costen, a 6-3, 275-pound redshirt junior, has made strides in his performance both on the field and in the weight room. He played in six games last season, registering 11 total tackles, two tackles for loss and a pair of quarterback hurries.

Challenges from a group of talented young players are expected at both tackle positions during the spring. Redshirt freshmen Jason Murphy (6-2, 285) and Kevin Hilton (6-1, 272) are expected to battle Costen at the tackle spot, while redshirt freshmen Tim Sandidge (6-1, 272) and Chris Pannell (6-3, 256) join Lewis at the nose tackle position.

Murphy was the Baltimore Sun Defensive Player of the Year his senior season in high school and posted an amazing 60 sacks during his varsity career. He has changed his body dramatically, adding nearly 30 pounds through the strength and conditioning program. Sandidge who played just two years of football in high school, has also shown good promise. The coaches are anxious to get a better look at Hilton, who was sidelined most of the fall with a broken foot, and Pannell, who could play end or tackle.

Wiles is optimistic, despite the holes he has to fill at tackle.

"I'm real encouraged with the attitude and the way we've worked," he says. "I saw the younger players get better during our Monday scrimmages in the fall. I heard a lot of good things from our offensive guys about some of those players."

Two players who entered school in January may also fit in along the defensive line. Freshmen Brandon Frye (6-4, 257) and Andrew Fleck (6-3, 258) both have the size and versatility to play several positions. Frye will get his first look at the end position working behind Davis, Cobb and Lallis. Fleck may start out at tackle, but the coaches haven't ruled out a possible switch to offense.

Walk-ons Bob Ruff and Bryant Taylor are also expected to get a look during the spring. Ruff, a rising sophomore, saw action in jayvee games during the fall and is slated to work at the stud end position. Taylor, a redshirt freshman, will work at the end spot.

"It's wide open," Wiles says about both the end and tackle spots. "Everybody is going to have the same amount of reps to win the positions. It will be day-to-day, scrimmage-to-scrimmage. Nobody should feel comfortable with their job. They all need to get out there and train hard every day during the spring."

Linebackers
Three key seniors - Ben Taylor, Jake Houseright and Brian Welch - are gone from the linebacker corps, leaving big shoes to fill at both the mike and backer positions. Questions also surround the whip linebacker spot, where 2001 starter Deon Provitt was lost to a knee injury after just four games and four-game starter T.J. Jackson opted to transfer following the season.

Taylor led the Hokies in tackles each of the last two seasons from the backer position, earning All-America honors both seasons. Houseright and Welch handled almost all of the snaps at mike linebacker during that same span.

Coach Bud Foster begins the spring with a nucleus of four players who have had experience at the inside linebacker positions - redshirt juniors Vegas Robinson and Chris Buie, redshirt sophomore Mikal Baaqee and senior Alex Markogiannakis. Another promising young player with time in the system, redshirt sophomore Chad Cooper, will sit out spring drills while recovering from a bout with Guillain-Barré syndrome.

"After that group, we've got redshirt freshmen, some of whom were highly-recruited kids and are talented players," Foster says. "Now it's time for them to get a better understanding of their position and the expectations that go with it. As a linebacker, they have to learn the entire defense because they are involved in the run aspect and the coverage aspect.

"It's going to be an exciting spring and it should be a fun spring," Foster adds. "I've been pleased with the young kids and their work ethic. Coaching them, teaching them, watching them get better that's going to be the fun part."

Foster is particularly excited about the potential of Robinson and Baaqee, who he labels a pair of athletic play-makers.

Robinson, who was the No. 2 man behind Taylor at backer last season, has a chance to be an excellent linebacker. He is a physical player with both speed and strength. A two-year letterman, he saw action on defense in eight games last season and was a regular on special teams. He finished the season with 18 tackles.

"I think Vegas is ready and excited about the opportunity to step up and be the starting backer," Foster says. "He has all the tools you're looking for to be a play-maker against the run and the pass. He's seen how the guys before him have worked and understands the defense. I expect him to go in this spring and play with a lot of confidence."

Baaqee practiced at backer during the fall, but is expected to move to mike linebacker for spring practice. His only game experience to date has been on special teams, but Foster is confident in his ability.

"Mikal is a guy I was very impressed with last spring," Foster says. "I thought he showed a lot of progress. He is an extremely active player who can bring outstanding quickness and athleticism to the mike position."

Joining Baaqee at mike linebacker this spring will be Markogiannakis, Buie, redshirt freshman Jordan Trott and transfer Steve Canter. Walk-on J.D. Zeigler could also get a look at the position.

Markogiannakis has a nose for the football and the only game experience at the mike position among the returning players. Buie possesses the physical ability to be successful but must show more consistent play during the spring. Trott is a big, rangy, athletic player who impressed Foster during fall practices, especially during the team's middle drills.

"There's not a lot of experience," Foster admits, "but I think you have an athletic mike linebacker in Baaqee and a bunch of guys who are going to battle for that spot."

With Cooper sitting out the spring, Robinson's competition at the backer position will also come from inexperienced, but talented, young players. Redshirt freshmen James Anderson and Blake Warren are both expected to get a lot of work at backer during the Hokies' 15 spring workouts.

Anderson has already added 15 pounds of muscle to his frame. He impressed Tech's coaches with his speed and athletic ability at linebacker during fall two-a-day practices. Foster wants him to become a little more physical at the point of attack and fully expects that to happen when practice opens.

Warren, a safety in high school, is making steady progress in his transition to linebacker. He brings football savvy and toughness to the position and has shown the ability to see things developing from the linebacker position. The spring will offer him a golden opportunity to gain an even better understanding of the position and to increase his physical strength.

"I've got a big job ahead of me getting all these young guys ready," Foster says. "The good thing is they are going to get a lot of reps. The bottom line is finding who can best help us beat Miami, beat Syracuse, beat Boston College , beat Pittsburgh that's what I've got to determine."

Whip linebackers coach Jim Cavanaugh joins Foster in facing an unsettled depth chart heading into the spring, but for a different reason. Last season, three players - all of whom were slated to return in 2002 - saw starting time at the whip position. Deon Provitt earned the starting job and was beginning to excel at the position when he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee against UCF. T.J. Jackson, a redshirt junior, took over the starting duties for four games before freshman Mike Daniels won the job for the final three regular season games and the Gator Bowl.

Up until his injury, Provitt was playing well. His combination of power and speed make him well suited for the whip position. The redshirt junior will be held out of contact work during the spring.

"Deon was off to a great start," Cavanaugh says. "He was inconsistent at times because of his inexperience, but he showed some great potential. Now, he needs to concentrate on getting healthy. He will play a big role in how this position is handled in the fall."

Cavanaugh will also be without the services of Jackson, who graduated in December and decided to transfer to Illinois State in hopes of gaining more playing time during his final season of eligibility. With Provitt sidelined and Jackson gone, most of Cavanaugh's attention will be focused on Daniels and redshirt sophomore Brandon Manning.

Daniels moved from free safety to whip following Provitt's injury and made a rapid adjustment. He moved into the starting lineup at Temple and gave the Hokies solid play.

"I thought Mike did a great job adjusting," Cavanaugh says. "He's got a pretty good feel for things out there. I'm excited about him this spring. He got such a fast lesson on what to do during the fall, I'm looking forward to working with him."

Manning excelled as a special teams player last fall and should find things falling into place for him at linebacker this spring. His work ethic and toughness will be positives as he works to earn more playing time at the position.

"This is the spring things should all make sense for him," says Cavanaugh. "He has a chance to help us he has shown potential."

Another player who will get a look at the whip position during the spring is redshirt freshman walk-on Tommy Morgan. Morgan showed good football savvy and toughness while playing on the scout team during the fall.

Defensive Secondary
The only real question mark in the secondary will be at the rover position where the Hokies must find a replacement for starter Kevin McCadam. Otherwise, Tech should be extremely solid with the return of starting free safety Willie Pile, his top backup and four experienced cornerbacks led by returning starter Ronyell Whitaker.

McCadam's departure following an outstanding senior season leaves some big shoes to fill. The Lakeside, Calif., product started all 12 games in 2001 and finished third on the team in tackles with 83. He also contributed eight tackles for loss, six passes broken up, three interceptions, two sacks and two fumble recoveries. He scored touchdowns on a 69-yard interception return and a 9-yard fumble return.

The leading candidate to replace McCadam is rising senior Billy Hardee, who is trying to return to form following a fall knee injury. Also returning are Michael Crawford, who saw limited action at the position last season, and Sam Fatherly, who worked mainly with the scout team.

Hardee, who has also seen playing time at cornerback and free safety during his Tech career, was making great strides at rover when he hurt his knee in the Rutgers game. The injury did not require surgery but Hardee saw action in just two of the Hokies' last eight regular-season games. He has been cleared for spring practice, but may not be at 100 percent.

"I know what Billy can do," says Jim Cavanaugh, who coaches the Hokies' strong safeties and outside linebackers. "He's a good football player. He works hard, he's tough and he has a knack for being around the football."

The spring will be particularly important for Crawford and Fatherly. Both players possess ability, but neither has developed consistency in their play to date. Crawford has shown outstanding effort while earning two varsity letters on special teams. He worked a total of 40 plays at rover during Tech's first six games in 2001 and finished the season with 14 tackles, including one quarterback sack. Fatherly's only action last season came on special teams against UCF.

In an effort to strengthen the rover position, the coaching staff has moved rising senior Keith Burnell over from the offense. Burnell will be getting his first taste of defense at Tech after spending his first three seasons at tailback. Burnell started seven games for the Hokies last season in the absence of starting tailback Lee Suggs. He contributed 707 yards rushing and scored nine touchdowns. During Tech's strength and conditioning testing in February, Burnell turned in the fastest 40 time on record for a Tech football player at 4.21 seconds.

"Keith will bring a different perspective to the position having played on offense," says Cavanaugh. "He has speed and athleticism, and should have an idea of leverage. There will be a lot for him to learn, but it helps that he is an older guy who has been around our program for four years and knows what it takes to be successful."

There are a number of guys returning who have been successful at the other three secondary positions, including senior starters Pile and Whitaker.

Pile, who has started 24 consecutive games at free safety, was second on the team in tackles last season with 94. He topped the team in interceptions for the second straight year with a total of four.

"Willie does a lot of good things and has made a lot of plays for us, but we're looking for him to make more," secondary coach Lorenzo Ward says. "This spring we want him to become more dominating in his open-field tackling."

Pile's top backup during the fall, Vincent Fuller, also returns. A redshirt sophomore, Fuller possesses a little more speed and quickness than Pile, but is still developing strength-wise. He collected 12 tackles and broke up a pair of passes while playing in 10 of Tech's 11 regular-season games. Fuller has done a good job of picking up the Tech system and could push Pile this spring. Freshman walk-on Jackson Dismukes will also work at the position.

At cornerback, Whitaker is slated to make a move from boundary corner to field corner when spring practice opens. The senior performer earned first-team All-BIG EAST and third-team AP All-America honors in 2001. He finished the season with 53 tackles, an interception and a team-leading 10 passes broken up. He also returned a blocked field goal 71 yards for a touchdown. Whitaker started several games at field corner during the 2000 season when starter Larry Austin was sidelined.

"When Ronyell is concentrating on his technique, there's none better," says Ward. "He played really well last season when he concentrated. This spring we are going to harp on him concentrating on technique 100 percent of the time."

Also competing at the field corner spot will be junior Eric Green, who has earned some starting time in each of his first two collegiate seasons, and freshman D.J. Walton, who was redshirted last season. Green has shown steady improvement at the position and will concentrate his efforts this spring on becoming a more physical player. He contributed 18 total tackles in 2001 and blocked two punts. Walton is a smart player who showed a lot of improvement during his first fall. He is expected to continue that improvement as he gets more attention during the spring.

Sophomore DeAngelo Hall and redshirt junior Garnell Wilds are expected to battle for the starting boundary cornerback position. Both players saw action in every game last season and each got one start - Hall on the boundary side and Wilds at field corner.

Hall has outstanding physical skills but must continue to learn the system and concentrate on his leverage and techniques. He registered 42 tackles and three interceptions last season to earn third-team Freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News. Wilds improved more than anyone in the secondary in 2001. He doesn't have the speed that some of the Hokies' other corners possess, but he works the hardest on the little things it takes to be successful. He posted 27 tackles, four passes broken up and two interceptions last fall.

"With six experienced players who can play returning, I feel very good about these positions," Ward says. "All of our goals for the spring are individual goals."

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Hokies have a reputation for outstanding special teams play, but head coach Frank Beamer wasn't completely satisfied with Tech's efforts in the kicking game during the 2001 season.

"I don't think we kicked the football as well as it takes to win championships," Beamer says. "We also had a punt returned for a touchdown against us and a punt blocked for a touchdown. That means our punt coverage and punt protection teams also need attention."

With most of the same performers returning from last season, Beamer will be looking for improved consistency during the spring.

Junior Carter Warley won't see any competition for the place-kicking duties during the spring with senior Jon Mollerup nursing a sore knee. Things should heat up in the fall, however, when Mollerup returns and highly-regarded freshman recruit Nic Schmitt joins the squad.

Warley struggled with back problems during the 2001 season but still managed to lead the team in scoring with 77 points. He connected on all 44 of his extra point kicks, but saw his field goal accuracy drop. He connected on just 11 of 21 field goals in '01 after making seven of his nine tries in 2000.

Redshirt sophomore Vinnie Burns returns as the starting punter, but he can count on renewed competition from redshirt junior Bobby Peaslee, who held the starting job in 2000. Burns finished his first season with a 37.8-yard average on 59 punts.

Along with his work as a punter, Peaslee will also continue as Tech's holder for placements. Senior receiver Shawn Witten will serve as his backup.

Both snappers from last season return and several new faces will join the competition. Ken Keister and Travis Conway split the snapping duties for most of the 2001 season, with Keister snapping for field goals and PATs and Conway snapping for punts. Keister took over both duties late in the year. Among the other players who could see some work at the positions during the spring are freshmen Will Montgomery and Nick Leeson.

Kickoff return man Richard Johnson is back, but the Hokies must replace record-setting punt returner André Davis. Cornerback Ronyell Whitaker, who finished 16th nationally in punt returns while subbing for an injured Davis during the 2000 season, will be a top candidate for the job. So will one of Whitaker's running mates at corner, sophomore DeAngelo Hall. Johnson, who averaged 22.2 yards on kickoff returns for the season, set a Tech bowl record for kickoff return yards with 118 in the Gator Bowl.

Tech will miss the play of special teams demon Wayne Ward, who blocked punts, broke wedges and leveled would-be tacklers during his four seasons with the Hokies. Two of the top returning players to watch will be junior Eric Green and redshirt sophomore Brandon Manning. Green has blocked three punts over the past two seasons, including two last year. Manning blocked one punt last season and returned one of Green's blocks for a touchdown against No. 1 ranked Miami. Tech finished the 2001 season with seven blocked kicks and three special teams touchdowns.