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2024 Virginia Tech Football Defense Starting Lineup Post-Spring Projection

Dorian Strong 1 VT BC 2023 From VT
Photo Credit: Virginia Tech Athletics

Our offseason lineup previews continue as we stick with the Virginia Tech football team but go from the offensive side to the defensive of the ball. This unit may not return the same depth of firepower as the offensive side, but the Hokies have some major stars back who could end having All-American caliber seasons including Dorian Strong and Antwaun Powell-Ryland.

There are also some fascinating position battles that are set to continue playing out over the summer and likely all the way till the season opener against Vanderbilt.

So with that said, here's my current defensive starting lineup projection for the Hokies.

DE: Antwaun Powell-Ryland

DE: Cole Nelson

Let’s start at defensive end, a position that has gone from a major weakness during Brent Pry’s first season to a major strength entering his third season.
All-ACC DE Antwaun Powell-Ryland has obviously been a major reason for that transformation emerging as one of the best pass rushers in the country last season. The Florida transfer had 40 tackles including 14.5 for loss with 9.5 sacks plus three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Even as teams focused in more on APR, he continued to shine finishing the season with 48 total pressures over the course of 13 games according to PFF, with at least three pressures in nine of 13 games.

That is the epitome of dominance, yet it feels like APR still has more room to grow, especially as a run defender where he at times appeared to get a little too greedy and explode up the field too much on the snap, putting himself out of position to stop the run his way. If APR can have a little more controlled aggression at times, he could take another big step in his game. Even if he doesn't simply because that's part of what makes him a dominant pass rusher, he still should be one of the best defensive ends east of the Mississippi this year.

Cole Nelson lost his starting job to Keyshawn Burgos to start last season, yet Nelson didn't give up and earned the starting spot back in large part due to the consistency he brought every snap. Nelson had the best season of his career in 2023 with 27 tackles including 7.5 tackles for loss with 4.5 sacks, all of which were career highs. Nelson may not have the same ceiling as Burgos, but he's shown he can be a productive, consistent Power 4 starting DE who defenses have to monitor and can't just load us elsewhere when he's on the field.

While I do think Nelson will start this fall, Burgos should not be forgotten about after showing lots of potential with 18 tackles including 4.5 for loss with two sacks. Consistency was lacking for Burgos but when he was firing on all cylinders, he was a forced to be reckoned with. Burgos also impressed in the Spring Game with three-straight sacks going against Parker Clements at one point, reminding us again of his massive potential.

If Burgos can become consistent rather than just having moments of brilliance and moments of not so great play, he could be set for a breakout year and make the jump to becoming an All-ACC level player.

Part of what helps Tech as well is the fact that they have quality depth not just with Burgos but also with CJ McCray and Jorden McDonald. McCray has proven himself to be a pass rushing specialist who had 14 pressures (more than Nelson and Burgos each had) according to PFF on his way to having 21 tackles including 3.5 sacks. Meanwhile, Jorden McDonald proved himself to be a capable fifth defensive end with six tackles including 2.5 for loss with 1.5 sacks giving the Hokies the type of quality depth at DE that they've been wanting to build across the board.

Less than two years ago after Virginia Tech was dominated at Duke, Brent Pry shared some some strong criticism of the lack of pass rush that his team was getting, with defensive end play being at center of that. Now entering year 3, Pry and J.C. Price have built a defensive end group that is a strength of this team and a weapon for their defense.

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