It’s finally game week! In the past, we’ve limited these lists to just the top 25 players, but this season, we’re upping our game to 50. So just about every day until the season starts, there will be a new player profile up here as we count down to the top ACC player for 2013.
Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus “completely bulletproof” — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.
The talk about the Virginia Tech defense these past couple years (and this season as well) is that it’s a full team effort — no individual member of the unit is necessarily elite, but together, they’re a very formidable group. It’s certainly true, but that also overlooks just how many playmakers the Hokies have. Tops among them is James Gayle, the team’s senior defensive end who’s made a living out of getting through the line since he arrived on campus. If Tech is going to get back to being a top-10 unit again, it’s going to be on the back of a solid pass rush, and that means Gayle will be leading the charge.
Last season’s Hokies tallied an impressive 35 sacks, five of which were by Gayle, which undersells his importance. Getting doubled every game, he was still able to make 11 tackles for a loss, but most importantly, he was able to draw blockers away from his teammates. So when you see the high team sack number, there’s plenty of praise to be tossed at the senior, despite the seemingly lower figure next to his name. Virginia Tech hasn’t had many players put up a monster amount of sacks from the defensive end spot of late, but that team approach is probably the biggest reason of all. If there’s any DE they’ve had lately who seems poised to really break out nationally though, perhaps it really is Gayle.
Slimming down to 255 pounds in the offseason, a sleaker, quicker Gayle appeared to dominate spring ball and even win defensive MVP. Sure, they’re intrasquad contests, but for a team as talent-laden as the Hokies’ it certainly speaks volumes that he’s ready to compete as the highest level of his career thus far. If the extra tenths of a second shed off his 40 time mean another five sacks and/or another five TFLs on top of that, you’ll be looking at one of the top defensive ends in the conference — if not the country. That’s a tough ideal to live up to, but from what we’ve seen from Gayle before this year’s even started, he seems more than poised to follow through and lead this Hokies defense.