If I asked you who the most important player on Virginia Tech’s defensive line was, there’s an 80 percent chance (roughly) that you’d select Ricky Walker. And you’d be right.
But who’s next on that list? Most would suggest Trevon Hill, but I’d posit that Houshun Gaines is just as important, if not more so.
Gaines, a redshirt junior defensive end, is coming into his own this season. The process began late in 2017, when Gaines filled in for the injured Vinny Mihota. Gaines started Tech’s last two games vs. Virginia and Oklahoma State and showed why he needed to be in the starting lineup. Gaines totaled four tackles for loss and two sacks in those two contests, displaying an explosiveness that Mihota simply didn’t have on the edge.
Gaines’ emergence as a productive pass rusher made replacing Tim Settle a bit easier. Virginia Tech slid Mihota back inside to defensive tackle, clearing the way for Gaines to start. So far, Gaines has one sack and two forced fumbles, all of which came against William and Mary.
On William and Mary’s first possession, Gaines hit a home run. On third down, Gaines ran right around the right tackle for a sack, and he caused a fumble that was recovered by Tech, leading to the Hokies’ first score.
Gaines’ impact goes beyond the box score. Gaines got to quarterback Shon Mitchell to force a throw away. Lined up on the left side, Gaines easily blew past the right tackle and nearly earned a sack. Mitchell was able to get the ball out, but Gaines forced the incompletion.
Seminoles were able to keep Gaines from doing too much damage statistically. Gaines finished with four tackles, a recovered fumble and a pass breakup. But on this play, Gaines saved a big run.
Facing a third and long, Florida State calls a read option. Gaines is the end being read, and he stays home to keep Deondre Francois from taking off. Once Francois hands off, Gaines has the awareness and athleticism to track back towards the ball and fill a gap, tripping Cam Akers before he can convert the third down.
Maybe Gaines’ biggest play came late in the second quarter, when the ‘Noles decided to try and convert a fourth and two deep in Virginia Tech territory. Gaines came unblocked on the left side and instead of making a bee line for the quarterback, Gaines kept his head up and batted down Fracnois’ pass to Akers. It wasn’t a guaranteed completion or conversion, but it was a big-time play nonetheless that prevented Florida State from moving the chains.
Gaines is still developing, but he’s been an impactful player thus far. A productive pass rush can go a long way towards generating a stout defense, especially when the secondary is still young and inexperienced. The Hokies have had their struggles on the back end but if the pass rush keeps getting to the quarterback, the secondary will perform better too.
Ricky Walker will continue drawing double teams and Trevon Hill will draw attention as well. With Walker and Hill keeping offensive coordinators awake at night, this season is a prime opportunity for Gaines to show he’s worth worrying about too. So far, Gaines is doing just that.