There were more than a few preseason reports hyping the 2012 Virginia Tech defense to be among its best-ever.
Jack Tyler, however, was not mentioned in any of those previews.
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Now 112 tackles later (and a coaches first-team All-ACC selection), the junior linebacker has found himself in the spotlight of a much-improved Hokies defense heading into the Russell Athletic Bowl against Rutgers. It's a far cry from several years ago, when as a walk-on, many had doubts regarding whether the 6-foot-1 Oakton (Va.) graduate could even play at the next level.
"That was maybe the biggest motivating factor in my career here, I felt like no one else thought I could play (at this level)," Tyler said. "Someone once explained to me that I could be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond with room to grow."
Tyler chose the big pond. Growth from there would be an understatement.
After redshirting his freshman season, Tyler saw limited action in Virginia Tech's first 12 games of 2010. But when Bruce Taylor was injured early in the ACC Championship game against Florida State, Tyler responded at the 'mike' linebacker position with seven solo tackles (three for a loss) in Virginia Tech's 44-33 victory over the Seminoles.
"Just getting those game reps and being put in the situation where (defensive coordinator Bud) Foster said 'OK, just go out and make plays' made me feel confident," Tyler said. "That was one of my better qualities- my football IQ is high- so I would say I was able to adapt quickly."
He added five more tackles in his first career start in the Hokies' loss to Stanford in the Orange Bowl. But despite those stats, doubts still lingered about whether Tyler was capable of being a mainstay in the defense entering 2011.
Tyler saw limited action for the first seven games as Taylor and junior Tariq Edwards played well in the inside linebacker spots. But an injury again thrust Tyler into a starting role against Georgia Tech's triple-option offense after Taylor suffered a season-ending LisFranc foot injury. Tyler responded with 12 total tackles and his first career sack in the Hokies 37-26 win over the Yellow Jackets, and he added another 21 total tackles in his final three starts of 2011.
With the expectation that Edwards and Taylor would return from serious injuries, Tyler was again expected to occupy a reserve role in 2012. But Edwards wasn't able to suit up for the 2012 season-opener against Georgia Tech, and this time the junior linebacker wouldn't relinquish his starting role.
Tyler registered a career-high 17 total tackles that night in a thrilling last-second victory over the Yellow Jackets, the most by any Hokie since Mike Crawford's 18 stops back in 2003. In the 11 games that have followed, Tyler has proven to be one of the most consistent linebackers in the ACC, as the Robert Griffin III-one-sleeve-wearing playmaker (he's a big Redskins fan) has recorded no fewer than seven tackles in any contest, and has produced four games of at least ten tackles. His efforts haven't gone unnoticed amongst his peers.
"He's a hell of a player," fellow linebacker and close friend Taylor said. "I wouldn't say he reinvented the linebacker position, but he definitely has his own kind of technique about the way he does things. He's very sneaky- that's the word I would use."
Although Tyler finished with the third-most tackles in the ACC, he was left off of the media's first-team All-ACC ballot. ACC coaches appeared to think differently as he was picked as a first-teamer on their ballot. While the media proved it didn't know Jack, Foster - who recruited the Fairfax native - had quietly been waiting for the day Tyler would realize such potential.
"I'm not surprised with how he's played; we brought Jack in knowing he was an outstanding football player," Foster said. "Whatever he runs (in the 40-yard dash), he plays a step quicker because he has great vision and those characteristics you look for in a linebacker."
Given the fact that Tyler still has one year remaining as a Hokie, it isn't inconceivable that his stats could be even gaudier in his senior campaign. Either way, Tyler won't be wondering whether he will be in a starting role in 2013.
"I'm counting on him to be a big-time leader for us and be the face of our defense- so to speak- next fall," Foster added. "I think he's a kid that our guys really respect because of his worth ethic and what he's all about."