Young defensive linemen receiving a lot of attention this spring

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Tim Settle’s early departure to pursue NFL riches left a rather gaping hole along Tech’s defensive line – both literally and figuratively.

But while the Hokies aren’t exactly stacked along the front, they are in much better shape this spring than maybe people realize, as the program participated in its 13th of 15 NCAA-allotted spring practices Tuesday evening.

Tech features a nice blend of experience in the form of guys like Ricky Walker and Trevon Hill and youth, with young players like Zion Debose, Jarrod Hewitt and Emmanuel Belmar all emerging. This group only needs for a few players to get a little better and a little more experienced, and for a healthy Vinny Mihota to return, to form an overall consistently productive unit.

Mihota, a rising fifth-year senior, tore his ACL in the Pittsburgh game this past fall and missed the remainder of the season, and he also missed this spring. When he returns to practice in August, he’ll be moved to defensive tackle to replace Settle, with Houshun Gaines, who started in Mihota’s absence, remaining at end.

Gaines, Mihota, Walker and Hill comprise a rather nice starting quartet. Thus, the task for defensive line coach Charley Wiles this spring has been developing quality depth, particularly at the tackle spot, and he likes what he has seen from his group so far.

“It’s really been a pretty good spring to be honest with you,” Wiles admitted.

Fortunately, Hewitt, a rising redshirt sophomore, took advantage of Mihota’s absence, receiving the lion’s share of work with the first-team group. The 6-foot-1, 285-pounder performed well in winter workouts, and that has carried over to spring practice, where he has played both physical and fast.

“Last year, I got a decent amount of reps in the spring, and throughout the fall, I was running with the two’s [second team],” Hewitt said. “I feel like I had enough experience going in. I got a decent amount of exposure my freshman year, but now I have a whole two camps under my belt and this second spring … I’m pretty experienced now and pretty comfortable with my position.”

Xavier Burke also has received a lot of reps at defensive tackle this spring. Wiles likes what he sees from Burke and said he feels confident in Hewitt and Burke as potential backups to Mihota and Walker next fall. Wiles also plans on giving Cam Goode, an incoming freshman from Maryland, a close look once he reports in July.

There is quite a bit for Tech fans to be excited about in regards to the Hokies’ two end positions. Gaines and Hill give the team two quality starters, with Hill tying for the team lead in sacks (5.5) a season ago. But players such as Belmar and rising redshirt freshmen Debose, TyJuan Garbutt and Nathan Proctor also have progressed immensely this spring.

In fact, Wiles called Belmar, who recorded four tackles as a redshirt freshman in 2017, his most consistent end of the group.

“Emmanuel Belmar, amazing, from one year,” Wiles said. “A linebacker coming in, last year really was a big learning experience for him, and I can’t wait to see how much better he is his second go around. He’s played fast, been a playmaker for us. Emmanuel has been so much more mature all the way across the board in everything.”

Debose may have the slight edge in the race for the fourth end spot. The 247-pounder – one of the more highly recruited players in the 2017 recruiting class – performed well in the scrimmage this past Saturday.

“Honestly, all of us are at practice working hard and taking advantage of each rep,” Debose said. “We’re just going to continue to go hard with each rep, and whatever the coaches feel like is best, then it’s best. But I feel like, me personally, I’m doing pretty good. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but I feel like I’ve been good.”

“Zion [Debose] took a real big step Saturday … I think in terms of just playing at full speed,” Wiles said.

Tech’s defense features a lot of young players, as graduation and early departures created some voids. But its young talent, particularly on the defensive line, bares watching – and bodes well for the future.

Here are some other notes from Tuesday’s news conference:

• Special teams coordinator James Shibest has been working receivers Hezekiah Grimsley and Sean Savoy and cornerback Bryce Watts at the punt returner spot in his search to find a replacement for Greg Stroman, who returned two punts for touchdowns this past fall. Savoy handled most of those duties in Saturday’s scrimmage.

“A guy like Greg [Stroman] has to be so hard to replace,” Shibest said. “He was obviously very explosive player, too, but his ability to field the ball and his decision making, that’s the first thing we got to find – a guy we can trust who can do those things back there, with ball security reasons.

“Whoever is back there, we are going to put someone we trust back there, whether he can make a play or not. We are still working. A lot of the guys have not done it at the college level, so it will be interesting.”

• Shibest said he likes what he has seen from his tight ends this spring, with both Chris Cunningham and Dalton Keene picking up from where they left off at the end of last season and improving on what they accomplished. Tech’s staff also plans on keeping Drake Deluliis at tight end instead of leaving him strictly at receiver. The 6-5 Deluliis, who took a redshirt season a year ago after injuring a hamstring, may be used in a Bucky Hodges-type of role, though expect him to be more on the line of scrimmage than Hodges was.

“I’ve been doing a little bit of both, kind of splitting out in some aspects and then also having my hand down in the dirt,” Deluliis said. “I’ve got to learn everything, get better at everything, so my goal now is to learn things and get everything up to par.”

The quarterbacks have thrown to the tight ends more this spring than in the past under offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen – which gets back to experience. In fact, in Saturday’s scrimmage, Cunningham caught a touchdown pass.

Given the youth at receiver, this bunch may catch way more than the 19 passes it caught a season ago.

“I think it’s all up to us,” Deluliis said. “If we understand the offense as well as we should, if we can make the plays, then we’ll get the ball. We’re going to cause whatever happens for us this year. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll get a bunch of passes this year.”

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