For insight into Georgia Tech’s opponent on Thursday night, we turn to Virginia Tech beat writer Mike Barber, who covers the Hokies for the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch. Among other things, Barber is a Rutgers graduate, a former bar owner and a Times-Dispatch staff writer since 2012. You can read his coverage here and follow him on Twitter here.
Q: Paul Johnson raved about defensive tackle Ricky Walker this week, saying he's probably as good as anybody in the ACC. What can you tell us about him?
A: Virginia Tech's coaches call Walker the Bell Cow. He's emerged as the team leader, with his consistent practice habits and work ethic setting a great example for younger players. But like you always hear, you can't really lead unless you're performing. For the past two years, Walker's been as good as just about any defensive linemen in the ACC. Yeah, I'd put him up there with Clemson and Miami's studs.
We spoke to defensive line coach Charley Wiles about this topic this week. Walker hasn't put up monster numbers so far this year (16 tackles, 3 TFLs and a half a sack in six games). But Wiles and defensive coordinator Bud Foster couldn't be much happier with his play. He gets a push on most snaps, denting the line of scrimmage despite often drawing double teams that open things up for his teammates.
Against the triple option, Walker will be front and center Thursday night.
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Q: The Hokies are leading the Coastal at 3-0 (4-2 overall) but are without quarterback Josh Jackson and the defense doesn't seem up to its usual standards (95th in total defense). What's your sense of how good this team is?
A: After the Florida State win in the opener, I would have told you this team could be a Top 10 team and the Coastal champ. The defense, with just a handful of experienced players, looked like it would be a typical Bud Foster unit. After the Old Dominion loss, I would have said Tech might be in a fight to keep its bowl streak going, as that young defense got exposed. Such is life with an inexperienced defense and now, a backup quarterback. I honestly don't think Ryan Willis is a major downgrade from Josh Jackson, if Willis can keep his emotions in check and make good decisions. That's a big if.
The defense continues to learn and develop week to week. So in the end, I do think Tech is Top 15 and division title material, if it can become a bit more consistent.
Q: Virginia Tech has played well on Thursday nights. I saw in the notes that the Hokies are 23-9 on the Thursday night ESPN games and 6-0 against Georgia Tech (including wins in Atlanta in 2007-11-13-15). Is there some sort of explanation for this beyond tradition/loud fans (the latter of which obviously doesn't apply in four of the wins over Georgia Tech)?
A: I wish I had some brilliant insight here. Certainly, in its 10-wins-a-year heyday under Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech started to make its Thursday night mark. So, being pretty good when it played a lot of those Thursday nighters helped. Lane Stadium is a great home venue but like you noted, that doesn't explain the road wins.
When No. 8 Florida State played at VT on a Thursday night in 2012, the Hokies lost. Tech has lost three times to Miami on Thursday nights.
I guess I'll leave it as cliche as I can and say Virginia Tech gets up for Thursday night, but really, it's probably got a lot more to do with the matchups than any mystical Thursday-night magic.
Q: Who's one player that Georgia Tech has to slow down on Virginia Tech's defense?
A: We already talked about Ricky Walker, the senior defensive tackle and leader of the young team. He'd be a great choice here but so would sophomore inside linebacker Rayshard Ashby. Ashby has emerged as a force in the middle of the defense, leading the Hokies with 51 tackles, including 6 1/2 for losses and a forced fumble. This is Asbhy's first year as a a starter but he's been surprisingly steady. Ashby talked this week about what he remembered from last year's Georgia Tech prep. It wasn't much. He knows to expect a physical game but the speed of the triple option could slow Ashby down.
Q: What's the craziest/most memorable thing you've heard from a fan regarding your ballot in the AP top 25 poll?
A: I love this question. A few years ago, I was the only write who didn't have Notre Dame ranked in the preseason poll. I didn't think the Irish would be very good defensively and I thought the schedule would eat them up. I'm not kidding you when I say I received hundreds of emails and tweets from upset Irish fans. To their credit, when Notre Dame finished 4-8 after struggling defensively, a few actually emailed to give me props.
That's been the biggest reaction, though just this week, Michigan fans upset that I have the one-loss Wolverines too low (I have them No. 10) on my ballot, questioned what I was smoking and/or drinking while doing my rankings.