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Orange Bowl Bloggin', Vol. 8: Hokies exploring options at linebacker ...

The Hokies are shuffling the deck at linebacker as they prepare for the Jan. 3 Orange Bowl against Stanford. Today, let’s take a look at how the plan – and the backup plan, and the other backup plan – is unfolding.

As previously mentioned, the primary plan is for Bruce Taylor to start at “mike” as he has all season. Taylor is a legitimate playmaker for the Hokies, so this part of the equation is solid. The other half of that plan is for redshirt freshman Tariq Edwards to start at “backer” beside Taylor.

Edwards was the backup backer all season behind starter Lyndell Gibson, who fractured his shoulder blade against Florida State in the ACC title game and will miss the bowl game. Edwards has 21 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery this season. He seems to have some natural playmaking ability and coaches expect him to rise to the challenge as a starter.

BUT ...

If Edwards doesn’t practice/play well – or if he gets hurt – the Hokies have also worked on a contingency plan during their first seven Orange Bowl practices in Blacksburg (they leave for Florida on Dec. 28). The backup plan has Taylor practicing some at the “backer” spot and his backup, redshirt freshman Jack Tyler, working as the first-team “mike.”

Tyler played in Taylor’s place for most of the ACC title game after Taylor suffered a stinger. And Tyler recorded three tackles for loss in that game. He’s a sure tackler and a smart kid. He has 20 tackles, five for loss, this season. But he’s also been described as a liability in pass coverage at times.

So what’s the other backup plan? It MIGHT be to play Barquell Rivers for the first time all season. Rivers tore his left quadriceps during offseason workouts just before spring practice and has battled tendonitis in his left knee (a common ailment following surgery on a torn quad) since rejoining the team this fall.

Rivers, a redshirt junior, was the starting “mike” last year and was second on the team with 96 tackles. It was initially believed that Rivers might make it back by the third or fourth game this season, but it became clear by Week 7 that his knee was just too stiff and he was too slow to play.

At that point, Tech shut Rivers down completely from practicing. He continued rehab, though, and has since made major strides. His knee has loosened up and he has participated fully in these first seven bowl practices.

Rivers has packed on some pounds – he’s up about 15 pounds to 250 – but he’s doing extra conditioning to knock that weight off. And even with it, coaches and trainers say he has looked a lot more like his old self in the last week.

I’m working on a big story on Rivers’ comeback attempt and I’ll post an extensive blog on him in the next day or two, but trainer Mike Goforth said today that Rivers is cleared to play in the Orange Bowl if he and defensive coordinator Bud Foster think he can. Foster said he might be able to provide a series or two.

To answer the question some of you are wondering: Rivers cannot get a sixth year of eligibility. To do that, you have to miss TWO years because of injury. Rivers sat out his first year at Tech as a normal redshirt, not for injury. So next year is his last season of eligibility, and it won’t affect his status in any way if he plays a few snaps in the Orange Bowl.

Frank Beamer said after today’s practice that Rivers is “hanging in there, and it’s a delight to see.” He said Rivers' knee hasn’t bothered him and he’d like to get him in the game against Stanford and “get him ready to pick up in the spring where he left off last fall.”

Beamer also said that the last four bowl practices have been very good. The last three have included specific preparations for Stanford and both the effort and execution have been strong.

A couple of other injury items from Goforth today: WR Dyrell Roberts, who had to have emergency surgery last month for compartment syndrome in his thigh, will not play in the Orange Bowl. His status for spring football is “yet to be determined.”

In better news, Gibson’s return from shoulder surgery could be faster than originally expected. He was first thought to be ruled out for spring practice. “I wouldn’t say that yet,” Goforth said. “His motion’s coming along. We originally talked about 6-8 months. But I’ve also heard 3-4 months thrown out there. He’ll probably be doing something during spring ball. He just might not have any contact.”

And while we’re talking about linebacker depth, some of you might be interested in some information on the future at the position. Recruiting junkies were no doubt disappointed this weekend when four-star linebacker Travis Hughes from Virginia Beach picked North Carolina over the Hokies.

But Tech might get a stud prospect of its own in four-star linebacker Stephone Anthony out of North Carolina, who is Rivers’ cousin. Anthony is rated higher than Hughes, slotted the No. 1 player in North Carolina, the No. 4 outside linebacker in the country and the No. 31 overall prospect in the nation by Rivals.com.

Anthony has offers from the likes of Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Miami, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma and USC. But Virginia Tech is on his short list of schools to choose from. He’ll take an official visit to Blacksburg in January. While talking to Rivers’ old middle school and high school coach (and close confidant) Felix Blakney today, I asked about the chances of Anthony becoming a Hokie.

“Now that Urban Meyer’s resigned, I’d say Virginia Tech’s probably the frontrunner,” Blakney said. “I’d like to think that’s where he’s going to be. When it’s all said and done, I think he’ll actually end up there with his cousin. That’d be something to watch, those two playing side by side at Virginia Tech. Stephone’s got the talent that if he came in and worked, I don’t see him getting redshirted. And I don’t think he’s going to go anywhere that he’s going to get redshirted.”

So that’s encouraging news for Hokies fans.  Blakney said he expects Anthony to announce his college choice around signing day in February so that he can take all his visits before pulling the trigger.

Now back to the current crop of linebackers at Tech. Here’s what Foster and the two guys who are part of Plan A had to say after Friday’s practice. Again, tune in tomorrow for more on Rivers’ comeback bid ...

D-COORDINATOR BUD FOSTER

ON TARIQ EDWARDS ALREADY SHOWING SIGNS OF IMPROVEMENT IN FOUR PRACTICES AS THE STARTER: “You just see a little bit more focus, a little bit more sense of urgency. I just think that’s human nature. Like with Barquell (Rivers). All the sudden, it was his time in the fire and he stepped up and produced in the Orange Bowl a couple years ago. So I’m hoping this kid will do the same thing. He’s a great kid, a talented kid. I’m looking forward to watching him play.”

ON EDWARDS’ BIG FIRST CHALLENGE AGAINST THE NO. 5 TEAM IN THE COUNTRY: “He’s good enough. He’s helped us win some games this year. It takes all phases and he’s been a producer in all phases. He’s played some on defense and played well at times for us, and he’s played very well on special teams. We recruited him for a reason, and I’m hoping he’ll step up and take advantage of the opportunity.”

ON HIS RESERVATIONS ABOUT EDWARDS: “Just experience. That’s the biggest thing. But at the same time, he’s going to be out there with good players and he just needs to play his position. That’s what Barquell had to do. Barquell, just play your position and let the other guys do their deal and you’re going to be fine. If he can just do that, he’ll be fine. He’s athletic. He can run. He’s got range. He’s got all the things you’re looking for. He just doesn’t have a lot of experience, but at the same time ... he’s played a little bit more than Barquell did in 2008.”

ON WORKING BRUCE TAYLOR AT BACKER SOME, TOO, AS A CONTINGENCY PLAN: “Well, that’s part of it. The other deal is, we’ve got Barquell working some now. I’ve been real pleased with him. That gives us three mikes and one backer, so Bruce is the next guy (at backer), just from athletic ability and range, all those things, who can work that spot. Right now, we’re working that rotation around. Bruce is getting enough reps in there, and he’s going to continue to get more.

“I feel good about Jack (Tyler, backup mike). I kind of likened him to Brett Warren in a lot of ways, but I think he’s further along than Brett at this stage in his career, being a complete linebacker. And I’m talking about in the passing game. Brett was a guy I could put him in and I knew he was a tackling machine, but this time in his career – as a redshirt freshman – I held my breath if they threw the football. And Jack’s kind of stepped in there in a big game and played extremely, extremely well in both facets, in the run game and the passing game. I was encouraged by that.

“So now we’ve got to figure out who’s going to be our next-best backer and I think that’s Bruce. We’re going to give him the reps there. Bruce will play at that spot. Tariq, I don’t know but I’d think he’ll need a blow once in a while, so Bruce will be the guy.”

LB BRUCE TAYLOR

ON HOW EXHAUSTING PRACTICES ARE NOW THAT HE’S WORKING AT BOTH MIKE AND BACKER: “Oh, man, they’re a little tough with me playing mike and backer. It’s fun, though. The only bad part is the conditioning at the end. That’s when you really feel how tired you are. But I’m looking forward to the challenge. I haven’t really played backer before, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun.”

ON THE DIFFERENCES IN THE POSITIONS: “The only major adjustment is the pass drops. That’s the big thing. As far as the run fits, it’s pretty much the same thing because you’re either in one gap or another. Pass drops, it’s just a whole different concept. Like our concentration, our coverage concentration is completely different. It’s something I’ve just got to pick up. Coach Foster’s doing a great job helping me figure it out, not getting down on me too hard because I’ve never done it before.”

ON THE PASS COVERAGE ADJUSTMENT: “As a mike, I never dropped to the flats. As a backer, that’s one of your main drops. So it’s just working on stuff like that. As a mike, you kind of go hook the curl or straight down the middle. So it’s a little different.”

ON THE COACHES TRUSTING HIM ENOUGH IN HIS FIRST YEAR AS A STARTER TO PLAY BOTH SPOTS IN A HUGE BOWL GAME: “That’s the big thing, whether the coach trusts you. If he trusts you to play a whole other position in the game, that says a lot. I appreciate them letting me do this, just to expand a little bit on my game and build my repertoire, learn some other things.”

ON THIS SETTING HIM UP TO BE ABLE TO START AT EITHER SPOT NEXT SEASON: “Exactly, depending on who’s healthy. Only positives are going to come out of this. It’s going to take a while for me to learn it, but once I do learn it, next year we’ll have unlimited linebackers. We’ll have probably six or seven guys that are ready to play.”

ON FEELING CONFIDENT IN BOTH TARIQ EDWARDS AND BACKUP MIKE LINEBACKER JACK TYLER: “Definitely. I see where they are now; it’s like where I was last year behind Barquell (Rivers). I was ready to play all year last year. I didn’t get as much snaps as I’d like, but that’s how it works sometimes – especially when it’s tight games. Coach Foster, he always says he wants to get us into games. The same stuff he’s telling Jack this year is the same stuff he told me last year. But in the heat of the game, a lot of times it doesn’t work out. And you can’t blame Coach Foster. That’s just how it is sometimes. You’ve got to always stay ready in case somebody goes down, which I was when Barquell went down. But I’ve got complete confidence in those guys. They’ve been having good practices, and they’re ready to go.”

LB TARIQ EDWARDS

ON GETTING HIS FIRST START IN A GAME LIKE THE ORANGE BOWL: “I’m ready, though. We’ve been putting in a lot of preparation so far, and I’m confident in myself and the coaches are confident in me. I feel like I’m going to do a good job.”

ON RISING TO THE OCCASION: “We’ve talked about it. I told him I’m ready to do the job. The other linebackers and the rest of the defense is confident in me and I’m going to get it done. It’s a big challenge. A lot of people are just putting it in my mind, and know that I’m ready. I don’t have really any doubts. I know Stanford is a good team, but I’m going to do what I need to do.”

ON HIS MINDSET CHANGING NOW THAT HE’S NOT A BACKUP: “It has taken a different route in my mind. I know I have to be there for the rest of the team. I have to step up. When you’re the backup, you know you may have to go in, you may be the next guy, but then again, you never know. Being that I know now, I have to be on point every day in practice.”

ON INCREASING HIS FOCUS IN PRACTICE: “We’ve been fluent the last couple weeks. Everything’s been kind of clicking. Not much hollering in practice. We’ve just been clicking, and I’ve been clicking with the rest of the defense.”

ON HAVING A CHANCE TO PROVE HE’S READY TO PLAY AT THIS LEVEL – NOW AND FOR THE NEXT THREE YEARS: “Exactly. That’s the mentality I have. I just have to let them know through practice and the game.”

ON LYNDELL GIBSON GETTING HURT TO GIVE HIM THIS CHANCE: “Being the next guy, you wouldn’t want to see the guy in front of you go down at all. But me and him talk a lot. I texted him while he was in the hospital. He basically let me know: Go ahead and take it, make sure I do the good thing for the rest of the team. I told him that I’d be there and make it happen for him. That’s kind of in my mind, too, just to play for him.”

ON BRUCE TAYLOR PRACTICING AT BOTH BACKER AND MIKE, AND WHETHER HE’S IN A COMPETITION WITH FRIEND JACK TYLER FOR PLAYING TIME IN THE BOWL: “Oh, no. (Foster) is just working Bruce in at the backer position in case there is something that goes wrong. He’s just trying to rotate everybody so everybody will know each position. So that’s basically what’s going on with that. Bruce, that’s his starting position, mike. (Foster) is just trying to make sure we have enough depth. If one person goes down, the next person can fall right in line.”

ON THE MAIN THING HE WANTS TO IMPROVE BETWEEN NOW AND THE ORANGE BOWL: “Just communication. When I’m rotating in, it’s hard to get the call. You don’t want to turn around and then miss something in front of you, so we just need more signals or something between me and maybe the rover. So just as far as communication. Anything else, I know what I’m doing.”

ON KNOWING EARLY THAT HE’LL HAVE TO PLAY AND HAVING A WHOLE MONTH TO PREPARE: “It helps a lot. Going in with the first unit, there’s a lot more experience with that group. So not only am I listening, you can communicate more and get communication back with the first group. The second group, it’s more like a learning experience still with everybody, so the communication isn’t fully there.”

* For instant updates on the Hokies, follow me at twitter.com/kyletuckerVP

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