Owners of the 11th ranked scoring defense in the country (19.3 points per game), the Virginia Tech lunch pail unit was certainly a reason why the team had a chance to win most of its games. Although the group lost seven players to the NFL, there's not much of a reason why there should be too much of a drop-off.
After having the 8th best passing defense in 2013, a strong secondary should produce similar numbers. The questions in this defense revolves around the front seven, where only one significant contributor returns.
The ultimate result of this defense will depend on the success of those players. It will be the difference between a very good and elite unit.
Defensive tackle: The only returning starter in the front seven (except for the injured Ronny Vandyke) resides at this position, and that's Luther Maddy. 29 starts while registering 109 tackles will help Maddy be the anchor of this group, and the senior will have to lead the way on the practice field and in the locker room as well.
Corey Marshall didn't play in 2013, but that won't stop him from being a huge force in 2014. His teammates have lauded Marshall's ability in practice this Spring, with some calling him an All-ACC performer. His performance will be vital to the interior of the VT defense.
Along the defensive line, you can't just have a strong first unit. These guys can't go all out every play. That's where players like true freshman Vincent Mihota, Wade Hansen, and Nigel Williams come into play. They'll need to provide a solid presence whenever an offense is able to sustain a drive.
Defensive end: Of the defensive ends returning, there's only a combined one start amongst the group. But that's no reason to get down in the dumps.
Dadi Nicholas took a big step forward in 2013, adding another pass-rushing specialist to the mix. In 2014, he'll be asked to be a complete player that can make plays in every aspect. His performance is the most vital to the group, as the Hokies love to create consistent pressure on the quarterback with a lockdown secondary.
Ken Ekanem exploded onto the scene this Spring, and he'll be the one spotting up opposite Nicholas to start out. The redshirt sophomore owns every skill necessary to be a star, it will just be a matter of translating it onto the field. As is the same at defensive tackle, Virginia Tech will need an adequate backup group to keep the production high.
DeWayne Alford and Seth Dooley are underclassmen, but both will need to acclimate themselves to the college game quickly as there isn't much depth behind the two.
Linebacker: It's going to be hard to replace the likes of Jack Tyler, who recorded at least 100 tackles in each of his last two seasons in Blacksburg. Tariq Edwards won't be easy to replace either, as both players have moved on to the next level.
Chase Williams has been waiting for his opportunity for some time, and he's going to get it in 2014. All signs say that the senior is ready to breakout, and his impressive football IQ should aid in getting Williams to a high level. He'll be especially good against the run, just like Tyler was.
Deon Clarke looked impressive in the Spring as well, and plays the game very similar to Edwards. He can cover, he can blitz, and he can play hard on the inside. Both of these backers should have good years and Hokie fans shouldn't be too worried about their inexperience.
Ronny Vandyke hopes to rebound from an injury-shortened 2013 campaign before it even started. He was one of the most talked about newcomers, and if he is healthy and puts it together, he will add quite a weapon to the linebacking core. If he's able to cover slot receivers consistently, the Hokies won't have to utilize their nickel defense as often.
Should there be any injuries, Josh Trimble, Derek DiNardo, and Dahman MacKinnon would all be solid replacements. The former two players got valuable experience while Vandyke was out last season.
Cornerback: This is the strongest aspect of the Hokie defense, as usual.
Although he was hurt in the Spring, Brandon Facyson should be good to go and ready to become one of the premier corners in the country. Add in Kendall Fuller, and you're looking at possibly the best cornerback tandem in the country. The two combined for 11 interceptions, and that was as true freshmen. There's no telling how many the two could pick off if both stay healthy.
Donovan Riley gained valuable experience as a starter with Facyson out this Spring, and adds a very solid third corner in nickel situations. And should either of the starters get injured, Riley's more than ready to handle the load.
Der'Woun Greene and Chuck Clark add solid depth and wouldn't be bad replacement players by any means.
Safety: Another strong aspect of the defense, this group returns both starters for their second season in a row. Detrick Bonner suffered a bit of a drop-off in his play from 2012, but I would expect the ballhawk to return to that form being extremely comfortable with his reads. Kyshoen Jarrett will once again man the rover spot, and he will look to make another jump after recording his first two interceptions of his career last season.
Quite frankly, between the combination of Fuller, Facyson, Bonner, and Jarrett, there should be zero games in which a quarterback has his way in the passing game. It should truly be fun to watch that group this season for any football fan.
Desmond Frye gained experience with Jarrett injured, and he seems ready to step into a prominent role if need be. He's a special teams guru that has the ability to make plays in open space. Redshirt sophomore Greg Jones made a nice jump this Spring, and will backup Bonner.