The staple of the Virginia Tech Hokies since Frank Beamer has been their coach has been the high level of play by their defense and their special teams. While their special teams suffered this season, the defense may have been one of their best ever.
Their defensive coordinator, Bud Foster, has been coaching at VT for the last 27 years (and the DC since 1995) with tons of success. How he has never been lured away by a head coaching position somewhere or a coordinator gig in the NFL is unknown to me, though I'm sure Hokie fans have some explanation.
It's one of my favorite defenses to watch and had arguably the best performance of any unit this season in their first game against Alabama, where they made AJ McCarron and the uber-talented Rolling Tide offense (a group that averaged nearly 39 points a game) to 206 yards of total offense (just 110 passing yards). If not for a punt return TD, a kick return TD and a interception returned for a touchdown (yes, 3 return TDs in one game) the Hokies were in a position to start Alabama with an 0-1 mark.
This season, the numbers really speak for themselves. The Hokies are ranked near the top of the nation in a pleathora of categories. Scoring defense (8th at 17.4 points per game), total defense (4th at 269.6 yards per game), sacks (4th with 37), tackles for loss (13th with 7.5 per game), rushing defense (8th with 103.8 yards per game), passing yards allowed (3rd at 165.8 per game), passing efficiency against (3rd in the NCAA), passes intercepted (5th with 19 on the year) and 3rd down conversion defense (3rd at just 29.5% conversions allowed).
Talent difference aside, this is the best defense that UCLA has faced this season. Better than Stanford, Oregon, Southern Cal or Arizona State. Most analytical measures have the Hokies either as the best defense in the country or very near the top. They 100% get my stamp of approval as well, for whatever that is worth.
Let's take a closer look at the front seven and the secondary of the Hokies.
The cool thing about the Hokies is that they rotate a lot up front and all of their players contribute. As pass rushers, they're extremely effective in getting to the quarterback and getting negative yardage plays. They've had issues with dual threats quarterbacks and have yet to play as explosive a threat as Brett Hundley (though there are maybe 3-5 players on Hundley's level as a dual threat QB in the entire NCAA). Regardless there is no Anthony Barr on that defense, they have 7 players with 3.5 or more sacks. Same thing with tackles for loss, as there are 8 players with 7 or more TFLs on the season. The listed starters in their defense front seven are as follows:
At the two DE spots, seniors James Gayle (6'4", 255 with 10 TFLs, 5.5 sacks and 33 QB hurries) and J.R. Collins (6'2", 248 with 10 TFLs, 5 sacks and 23 QB hurries) are the starters, but expect to see a lot of redshirt sophomore Dadi Nicolas (undersized at 6'3", 224 but has 7 TFLs, 13 hurries and 4 sacks as a situational rusher) as well. These ends aren't big, in fact UCLA has a huge size advantage on VT's defense up front. They are however very effective rushers and quick as hell. Think more disciplined versions of Cassius Marsh.
Side Note: Why the hell doesn't UCLA keep track of hurries publicly? It's a really easy stat to track and a better tell of effective rushers than sacks are sometimes.
The interior lineman are perhaps more impressive as a group, and are a huge reason why the Hokies are able to sacrifice size on the exterior of the line. The pair of junior Luther Maddy (11.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks and 14 hurries) and senior Derrick Hopkins (7.5 TFLs, 11 hurries and 4 sacks) are one of the better defensive tackle combos in the NCAA and one of the bigger combos as well. Hopkins (6' and 311 pounds) was a 2nd team All-ACC selection and Maddy (6'1" and 296 pounds) was 3rd team, which is a conference that featured Aaron Donald (guy that beat Anthony Barr for a couple awards) and a Florida State DL that might have 6 NFL guys on it . They're backed up by a capable pair of freshmen in Woody Barron and Nigel Williams that will see a lot of action in rotation.
The linebackers are a pretty talented unit as well (it's not hyperbole if it is true) led by senior Jack Tyler, who is a 3-year starter and a next level guy that was once a walk-on for the Hokies. Tyler isn't massive at 6'1", 230 but produces like crazy from his linebacker spot, recording 93 tackles, 10.5 TFLs and 4 sacks in 2013. He's complimented by senior Tariq Edwards (10.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks) and sophomore Josh Trimble at the other two spots. Trimble is the backer that is on the field the least of the trio, as the secondary has players that are required more often on the field (UCLA's defense loses a defensive lineman in these sets, the Hokies lose a LB). That group of backers will likely be the only players that factor into the outcome on defense from the linebacking core.
UCLA's offensive line and running backs will have a tough task in containing this group, both in pass protection and trying to run the ball. It's a great test to end the season and should be a lot of fun to watch how they handle the game plan a creative coordinator like Foster.
I'll preface this section by saying that it is a strong possibility that every player in this secondary will be an Day 1 or 2 NFL draft pick in the near future. 6-deep on high level NFL prospects is no small feat. Some NFL teams barely have that much talent (Cowboys and Falcons fans get what I'm talking about).
The stars are the combination of brothers in Kendall Fuller and Kyle Fuller (who may be injured for the Sun Bowl). The pair are essentially the same player physically (5'11"-6' and around 195 pounds), but Kendall is a true freshman and Kyle is senior. Kyle had a very productive season (10 pass breakups and 2 interceptions in well under a full season of games, and still selected 1st Team All-ACC, 2nd Team All-American by Walter Camp). It's not surprising that Virginia Tech lost 3 games (Duke, Maryland, Boston College) that he either didn't play or played an extremely limited number of snaps in because he might be the best defensive back in the country when healthy. Kendall Fuller might end up being an even better player, and the only freshman defender that I would consider on Myles Jack's level. Kendall had 6 interceptions to lead the Hokies (only 5 players in the NCAA had more) and started 11 games.
The rest of the secondary doesn't get enough credit, as junior Kyshoen Jarrett (2nd on the team with 67 tackles, 3rd team All-ACC), junior Detrick Bonner (43 tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 INT and around 30 starts in three years) and freshman Brandon Facyson (3rd team All-ACC as a true freshman, recording 5 interceptions and 12 pass deflections and ideal sized at 6'2") are all capable of starting for the vast majority of teams in the country and combined to be arguably the best pass defense in the country this season. One huge piece that was missing for most of the season, but will be a part of the Sun Bowl is redshirt senior Antone Exum. Exum was an All-ACC player in 2011 and 2012 but suffered an ACL injury in the offseason and then came back and injured his ankle during the season. Exum is going to be a steal for some team in the draft, he's a huge corner at 6'1", 220 pounds with every tool a DB needs except perhaps durability.
This secondary is big across the board. Exum is the biggest guy, but both Fuller brother are good-sized and every player that will see the field is at or above 6'0" and more than 195 pounds. The UCLA receivers will have to play physical and block well all game on this group as they can shed blocks, make tackles in space and shut down routes in press coverage consistently. The blocking on the edges is something to keep an eye on because if the Hokies beat those blocks, that will force Brett Hundley to look elsewhere on screens and quick passes, which puts more pressure on the young line against a good pass rush.
I'm going to keep getting more excited about this matchup because it is the best one game test of telling how ready Brett Hundley is for the next level. There is not many defenses that I would rather see Hundley face than this one (maybe Alabama or Michigan State). It's foolish to weight a decision on one game; but, at full strength, the Hokies secondary is the best in college football. Scouts will have their eyes on this game, for many reasons.