Last season was not a banner year for the “Lunch Pail” defense. Virginia Tech’s defensive unit struggled both up front and on the back end, finishing 106th in rush defense and 63rd in pass defense.
I can bust out more statistics, but if you watched a decent number of the games from 2018, those stats would paint you a picture you’ve already seen. The Hokies’ defense was uncharacteristically bad.
The two primary issues — poor defensive line play and poor secondary play — remain issues as we inch closer to the start of summer practices. Today, I want to take a closer look up front.
Virginia Tech addressed immediate needs up front this offseason, adding a plethora of defensive tackles. Guys like Dashawn Crawford, Jaden Cunningham and Mario Kendricks boost Virginia Tech’s numbers at the position, but there’s no guarantee of production there. Even one of the expected starters, Jarrod Hewitt, has zero career sacks to his name.
Here’s what Virginia Tech’s returning production looks like on the interior…
- Jarrod Hewitt: zero sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss
- Rob Porcher: 1 sack, 2 TFLs
Everyone else is new to the team. That’s a tad scary.
The problem at defensive end got worse last week, when it was announced that Houshun Gaines is not with the team at the moment as he heals from a torn ACL last year and losing his mother in October. Gaines has been through hell, and he deserves whatever time is needed before he comes back to football.
Gaines’ absence creates another void at defensive end, forcing TyJuan Garbutt to step up and assume the role as starter. But without Gaines, there is little track record of production at defensive end for Virginia Tech.
Let’s look at the career sack and tackles for loss totals for Virginia Tech’s returning defensive ends…
- Emmanuel Belmar: 2 sacks, 5 tackles for loss
- TyJuan Garbutt: 1 sack, 6.5 TFLs
- Zion DeBose: zero sacks, 0.5 TFLs
- Eli Adams: zero sacks, zero TFLs
- Nathan Proctor: zero sacks, zero TFLs
- Jaevon Becton: zero sacks, zero TFLs
You don’t need an overweight sportswriter to tell you those numbers aren’t good. There’s talent at the position, but there’s no record of high-level output from any of those ends. Belmar and Garbutt are the only ones with any sort of production in their careers. Everyone else? Not so much.
To Justin Fuente’s credit, he somewhat acknowledged at ACC Kickoff that though he likes the unit he has, he sees the same inexperience at defensive end that everyone else does.
“In regards to just rushing the passer, I do like the way some of our young guys have come forward,” Fuente told The Athletic (subscription required). “It would be nice to develop that. TyJuan Garbutt is starting to come into his own in that role. Emmanuel Belmar is kind of a bigger, physical guy for us, but he’s continuing to come there. And then we’ll have to have some play from some young guys. We’ll have to have some other guys continue to step up at that position to help us.”
There is a chance that all of this works out. Tech’s newcomers at defensive tackle could make an impact and sure up the defensive interior. The ends that Fuente recruited just a couple years ago could develop into bonafide starters. And there’s a chance we could see this defensive front torment a very weak 2019 schedule.
There’s also a chance that we see a similar unit to 2018, when one lone experienced defensive tackle wasn’t enough. Hewitt may not get the help he needs, and Tech may struggle to slow down the likes of Boston College and Pittsburgh. And the unit might not get enough pressure on the edge like it did in 2018, when Virginia Tech finished tied for 84th in the country with 24 sacks.
If Virginia Tech’s defense is going to return to normalcy, the defensive front needs to take serious strides. Belmar, Garbutt and the rest of the ends need to generate pressure in the pocket, and the big uglies need to slow down opposing running backs. There’s no way to know what’s going to happen. We just have to wait and see.