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{span}Virginia Tech defensive end Houshun Gaines (left) hits William and Mary quarterback Shon Mitchell, forcing a fumble that led to a turnover during a 2018 game.{/span}

BLACKSBURG—The Roanoke Times is taking a look at the Hokies roster before spring camp gets started position by position. Here’s a look at Virginia Tech’s defensive line...

Coming and going

Departing (2): Ricky Walker (Graduate); Vinny Mihota (Graduate)

Returning (11): Jaevon Becton (R-Fr); Emmanuel Belmar (R-Jr); Zion Debose (R-Soph); Houshun Gaines (R-Sr); TyJuan Garbutt (R-Soph); Robert Porcher (R-Soph); Nathan Proctor (R-Soph); Jimmie Taylor (R-Soph); Eli Adams (R-Fr); Xavier Burke (R-Sr); Jarrod Hewitt (R-Jr)

Early enrollees (1): Dashawn Crawford (Fr)

Fall enrollees (4): Mario Kendricks (Fr); Norell Pollard (Fr); Joshua Fuga (Fr); Jaden Cunningham (Fr)

What we know

Virginia Tech won’t be as short-handed on the defensive line as it was in 2018. The team signed five defensive lineman in 2019 including a pair of junior college transfers at defensive tackle. (Dashawn Crawford and Jaden Cunningham). Crawford enrolled early and will participate in spring practice.

Defensive tackle Ricky Walker is one of the few defensive starters Virginia Tech has to replace, but that won’t be an easy task. Walker was the most consistent player on the defense and an important (plus vocal) leader in the locker room.

Jarrod Hewitt is making a strong push to take on Walker’s leadership role, but still has a ways to go to match Walker’s production.

What we don’t know

Plenty.

The health of Houshun Gaines will be a key storyline to follow in the coming months. Gaines is the team’s most effective pass rusher—an area the defense struggled in 2018 finishing No. 83 in FBS with 24 sacks—but he suffered a torn ACL in the middle of November. There’s no guarantee Gaines will be 100 percent when the team opens fall camp.

Fellow defensive lineman Xavier Burke’s (Achilles injury) recovery timeline is also unclear.

Injuries last year did allow many of Virginia Tech’s underclassmen—Zion Debose, TyJuan Garbutt, Robert Porcher and Nathan Proctor—time to audition for larger roles. Garbutt was probably the standout of the group finishing the year with 31 tackles (18 solo) with 6.5 for a loss and a sack, but all that playing time will be up for grabs again this spring.

Virginia Tech needs a couple guys from that group to take a major step forward as it looks for a stronger depth this season.

All eyes on

Virginia Tech needs Crawford and Cunningham to hit the ground running.

Their junior college experience gives them a significant advantage at tackle over their fellow 2019 signees. They both should be physically prepared as well with Crawford initially measuring in at 6-foot, 270-pounds and Cunningham at 6-foot-2, 304-pounds.

Virginia Tech hasn’t relied on junior college transfers much during coach Justin Fuente’s tenure with the notable exceptions being at quarterback. Will Crawford and Cunningham buck that trend? The Hokies defense would benefit if they do.

Outlook

Virginia Tech remains in a rebuilding mode on the defensive line. The coaching staff’s recruiting efforts ensured the Hokies will be fine number-wise for 2019, but production is another issue. Only 12 FBS teams allowed more runs of 10 yards or more last season as Tech’s pass rusher was way too sporadic. The Hokies open spring with their most impactful returning defender (Gaines) on the shelf and new clear playmakers waiting in the wings.

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