Today, our position-by-position preview of the Virginia Tech Hokies continues with Ken Ekanem and the defensive ends.
After a dominant 2014 season, both Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem had somewhat down seasons in 2015 that hurt Virginia Tech's pass rush a lot. However, both players were still solid but the Hokies now will be replacing Nicolas though the good news is they still have Ekanem to lead the way on the ends of the defensive line.
Despite having a down season from his All-ACC Third Team performance in 2014, Ekanem still was solid with 39 tackles, 9.5 total tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. Ekanem now enters 2016 as a defensive leader and likely the focal point for opposing offensive coordinators trying to slow down Virginia Tech's pass rush.
Ekanem added on some more weight and is up to 260 pounds which is more ideal for a defensive end. Ekanem has proven to be a better pass rusher than run defender with 14 sacks compared to 24 total tackles for loss in the last two seasons but Ekanem has been productive either way and enters this year as one of the ACC's top defensive ends.
Ekanem isn't a speed rusher like Dadi Nicolas but Ekanem is a fairly refined pass rusher that has some good pass rush moves and with his added strength, should be able to improve as a power rusher. Ekanem has ambitions to prove that he is one of the top defensive ends in the ACC, and with his goal for a double-digit sack season, it wouldn't be surprising for him to achieve that even with the increased attention.
Across from him will most likely be Vinny Mihota who moved back to defensive end for good this spring and just about locked down a starting defensive end spot. Unlike the man he is replacing, Mihota is not a speed rusher but he brings great size and a more power-rushing style that should make him effective as a run-stuffing defensive end that can be effective closing holes towards the interior of the line.
Mihota's speed has the potential to be an issue for him though Mihota has focused on slimming down slightly from his time at defensive tackle to become faster and more nimble. Mihota has the potential to be a very good power-rushing defensive end but his speed will be one of the big things that he will have to improve to maximize his potential.
Behind that duo will be two talented redshirt freshmen in Houshun Gaines and Trevon Hill who will be battling throughout the year and beyond to be Ken Ekanem's replacement in the starting lineup.
Gaines had a breakout spring and looked quite good before having his off-the-field issue that has led to his suspension for at least the opener against Liberty. However, Gaines has kept working hard after making his mistake and has gotten his weight up to 248 pounds after starting out his collegiate career around 220 to 225 pounds.
Gaines is proving to be someone with a lot of size and quality speed to get around the outside and get to the quarterback. Gaines was one of the stars of this year's Spring Game as he proved he could get it done attacking inside as a run stuffer or going around the outside and getting to QBs. Gaines has a bright future and he may even have an outside chance at pushing Vinny Mihota for a starting DE spot this fall.
Meanwhile, Trevon Hill looked like someone who could break into the two-deep in his first year on campus before tearing his ACL forced him to redshirt. Hill looked healthy this spring and while he is behind Gaines, the 757 native seems very likely to earn a spot in the two-deep over one of last year's backups, Seth Dooley.
Hill is built as an athletic speed rusher that could be a lot like Dadi Nicolas in his pass rushing ability to get around the edge and get to the QB. Hill was quite thin previously as he entered college around 220 to 230 pounds but Ben Hilgart and the S&C coaches have done a great job getting him up to a listed weight of 240 pounds. As Hill gets more reps under his belt, it wouldn't be surprising to see him make a surge and push Mihota and Gaines some this fall.
Seth Dooley was previously one of the top backups with many believing that he was going to be the next starting defensive end, replacing Dadi Nicolas. Instead, Dooley was injured this past spring and now is in serious danger of not earning a spot in the two-deep. Dooley has always had intriguing upside due in part to his long 6'5'' frame but Dooley just hasn't proven to be the most athletic or fast in the past.
Now, Dooley needs to make a big move this fall to get back ahead of Hill and earn a spot in the two-deep. Even if he does earn a spot in the two-deep, Dooley may seriously consider transferring with his chances of starting before his graduation seeming less and less likely.
Darius Fullwood redshirted last year and has some intriguing upside though with Fullwood having the size to potentially move to defensive tackle, there is definitely a chance that could happen especially with Harry Lewis transferring. Jimmie Taylor enrolled this spring but Taylor should be redshirted this fall wit the Hokies having better depth and talent ahead of him.
DE Depth Chart Prediction
- Ken Ekanem
- Vinny Mihota
- Houshun Gaines
- Trevon Hill
- Seth Dooley
- Darius Fullwood
- Jimmie Taylor (Redshirt)
No surprise as Ken Ekanem and Vinny Mihota are our predicted starters while Houshun Gaines and Trevon Hill finish out the two-deep. However, Gaines has a lot of upside and more speed than Mihota, making a change to the lineup possible especially if Miihota were to struggle during the first month of the season. Virginia Tech's future at defensive end looks bright while Ken Ekanem is ready to finish off his collegiate career with a big, final season.
Our position-by-position preview continues on tomorrow with Andrew Motuapuaka and the linebackers.
Check out the home of our 2016 Virginia Tech Football Preview right here.