BLACKSBURG – Tucked inside an otherwise flattering report about the play of redshirt freshman defensive end TyJuan Garbutt, Virginia Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles noted one technique error that led to a big play for Pittsburgh in Saturday’s loss.
Garbutt didn’t need any details to know immediately which play his coach was referring to.
“One false step, to where you step underneath yourself or you don’t step where you need to be, can take you a second longer to get everything spilled,” Garbutt, a 6-foot-1, 245-pound Fredericksburg native, said this week. “I know what play he was talking about.”
On a young defense, there have been too many times that one or two players took one or two false steps, errors that opponents have been all too quick to exploit.
Virginia Tech (4-5, 3-3 ACC) has allowed 19 plays of 40 yards or longer this season. That’s the eighth most in the nation and the third most among Power 5 schools – despite playing one game fewer than most of those teams.
The Hokies, losers of three straight, host Miami (5-5, 2-4) on Saturday still needing two victories to become bowl eligible. With injuries continuing to pile up for the already young defense, preventing those big plays isn’t getting any easier.
But the emergence of players like Garbutt and fellow redshirt freshmen Robert Porcher IV and Zion Debose has given Tech some options up front with its defensive line.
“You are getting a chance to see them play, and in some cases, you see guys getting better,” Wiles said. “These kids are learning and we’re teaching and we’re taking full advantage of every opportunity to improve and they’re getting better. We’ve got to break through. Going back over the last couple or three games, there’s a lot of situations there that we’re close to doing some things really well, so we’ve just got to keep fighting and keep getting better.”
Inside at defensive tackle, the Hokies have a bonafide star in Ricky Walker. Walker’s played in all nine games this season, recording 31 tackles, including five for losses. Fellow senior Vinny Mihota has had a slow recovery from offseason knee surgery, and sophomore Jarrod Hewitt missed the last two games after getting hurt against Georgia Tech three weeks ago.
At defensive end, Tech kicked star pass rusher Trevon Hill off the team following the Old Dominion loss. Saturday against Pittsburgh, the Hokies opened the game without junior defensive end Emmanuel Belmar, who didn’t dress due to an undisclosed injury, then saw junior defensive end suffer a season-ending knee injury during the game.
“It’s a good example of the toll that can be enacted on your team,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “When you talk about offenses that go as fast they can every single snap, the strain that puts on the defense or when you’re not as good defensively as you have been, the amount of snaps that they have to play can lead to a couple situations like this.”
Losing Gaines was particularly hard for the defense fighting through a losing streak.
“That’s one of our biggest blows that we took,” Garbutt said of the Gaines injury. “He’s a great teammate. He’s always been the type of motivator, especially for a guy like me, he’s always been a role model on the field, definitely, funny guy off the field, someone that really leads us and helps us younger guys, he brings us energy by his personality and his character, so that helps us.”
Porcher had four tackles in the loss to Georgia Tech and Garbutt had three tackles for loss against Pittsburgh.
Tech coach Justin Fuente said expects the team to have Hewitt against Miami on Saturday, and Wiles said Belmar is day-to-day. If Belmar can’t go, true freshman Eli Adams and redshirt freshman Nathan Proctor also figure to see more time.
Garbutt appears to be the player emerging the most rapidly at end.
“He played fast and physical,” Wiles said. “He got kicked out one time that went down to the 5, one play early in the game. … But he’s going to learn from that and he’ll be better the next time. We’ve been seeing that coming.”
And while his play against Pittsburgh stood out on Saturday, Garbutt said he still has plenty of work to do.
“I don’t feel pressure, but it’s obviously a big opportunity,” Garbutt said. “And it’s an opportunity I don’t want to hurt my teammates and I want to help them to where I can be the best me.”
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