Tomorrow is the day we’ve been waiting for since the Alabama Crimson Tide finished mauling Notre Dame on January 7th to capture its 15th national championship. Tomorrow afternoon in the Georgia Dome, the Crimson Tide will take the field to begin its quest for a three-peat against the Virginia Tech Hokies.
We previewed the Virginia Tech offense earlier this week, and now we move on to their defense. The Hokies return nine starters from a pretty good defense that finished 18th in the country a year ago.
It all starts up front for the Hokies, who have one of the most experienced defensive lines in the country. All four starters are back from 2012, and they have made 91 starts between them. Seniors James Gayle and J.R. Collins are the bookends, with senior Derrick Hopkins and junior Luther Maddy on the inside. Maddy is the most inexperienced of the bunch as he has made just 16 starts.
Their experienced defensive line will be a good early test for an Alabama offensive line that is breaking in three new starters. We’ll find out pretty quickly if the Crimson Tide’s offensive line is up to the task. Last season’s line was a big reason for Alabama winning the BCS crown, and they’ll need new starters Arie Kouandjio at left guard, Ryan Kelly at center, and Austin Shepherd at right tackle to make seamless transitions in order to get back to the mountaintop.
At linebacker, the Hokies have two new starters, but All-ACC performer Jack Tyler is back in the middle. The senior led the team in tackles last season with 119, and he’s one of the best at this position in the nation.
Tariq Evans is a new starter at outside linebacker, but he has plenty of experience. He made 14 starts in 2011 before suffering an injury in the Sugar Bowl that slowed his progress. He was used in a reserve role last season as he worked his way back from the injury, but you can basically call him Virginia Tech’s 10th returning starter on defense.
Sophomore Ronny Vandyke is the other starter on the outside, and he was one of Virginia Tech’s best reserves in 2012. He also made two starts at outside linebacker.
Virginia Tech’s experienced front seven will have their hands full with Alabama’s power running game, but if Alabama’s offensive line doesn’t come together like most expect, then it could be a struggle to move the ball on the ground. Alabama didn’t have much trouble running the ball against anyone last year, but you can’t take for granted how historically great that offensive line was. First round picks Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker are gone, as is three time All-American Barrett Jones.
The Hokies are just experienced in the secondary, with all four starters back. Of course, they will be without their top cornerback, senior Antone Exum, who hasn’t fully recovered from an ACL tear he suffered playing pickup basketball in January. Exum’s injury will thrust true freshman Kendall Fuller into a starting role in his first collegiate game. Fuller was the prize of Frank Beamer’s 2013 recruiting class as he was rated a five-star prospect and the second best corner in the class according to rivals. Fuller has all the talent in the world, but look for AJ McCarron to pick on the freshman corner on Saturday.
Kendall’s older brother Kyle will start on the other side of the field. The elder Fuller has made 34 starts in his three years in Blacksburg, and will likely draw the task of covering Alabama’s Amari Cooper, who is one of the best receivers in the nation.
Junior safeties Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner are also returning starters. They’ve made 39 starts between them.
Virginia Tech’s secondary has plenty of experience, but this is the deepest and most skilled group of wide receivers Alabama has trotted out in school history. Even if the Hokies can neutralize Amari Cooper, McCarron has a plethora of other weapons to distribute the ball to with the likes of Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, and Kevin Norwood, among several others, all being capable of making plays.
With Alabama facing a full schedule of SEC defenses in future weeks, this will be a great early season test against a talented, experienced, and well-coached Hokies defense. Long time defensive coordinator Bud Foster is one of the best in the business.
While Virginia Tech’s offense isn’t likely to find much success against Alabama’s defense, the Hokies have a defense that could cause Alabama’s offense some problems. That will likely be null and void if Alabama’s offensive line comes together and can dominate the point of attack.
That’s certainly not a given though, and we won’t know how the line will fare until the game actually kicks off on Saturday.
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