As much as James Gayle wanted to play in 2009 when he first arrived at Virginia Tech, he didn't really have a chance. He said the day before the '09 season-opener against Alabama he didn't "feel like sitting out a year," because that wasn't the kind of player he was.
Gayle redshirted that year, which was a wise choice considering he couldn't jump above No. 3 on the defensive end depth chart. To hear Gayle talk about his redshirt freshman season last year, it sounds like he could've used another year of seasoning before he actually got on the field. Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles has indicated to reporters Gayle had a tough time making in-game adjustments last season.
Gayle, who will help lead No. 11 Tech's defense on Saturday at East Carolina, has transformed himself quite a bit since the start of spring practice. He has put himself in position to be considered Tech's primary pass-rush threat, something he attributes to simply gaining a better knowledge of what he's supposed to do and where he's supposed to go on the field since the spring.
"It wasn't that I didn't know the plays," said Gayle of his approach last season. "It was trying to get the calls in, and then you have thousands of people screaming. It just makes it difficult."
Since Tech first offered him a scholarship three years ago, Gayle has gained nearly 50 pounds, blossoming into a long-limbed 6-foot-4, 248-pound sophomore defensive end. Despite his struggles last season, he still managed to log four sacks (fourth on the team) as a backup.
Though big things are expected of Gayle this season, he's in the midst of growing into the role. A soft-spoken kid, Gayle said he never really paid much attention to college football when he was at Bethel, where he didn't even show much serious interest in playing the game until his junior year.
Since coming to Tech, he has become something of a student of recent past impact defensive ends for the Hokies. He said he has studied film of Chris Ellis, another Bethel graduate who Gayle is often compared to because of physical similarities (Ellis was 6-4 and 267 pounds in his 2007 senior season at Tech), Darryl Tapp and John Engelberger.
With the kind of promise he's showing, Gayle may be on the brink of starting to live up to the high standards his football-accomplished family has set.
His uncle, Shaun, played at Bethel and Ohio State before enjoying a 12-year career as a defensive back in the National Football League, including 11 seasons with the Chicago Bears. He was selected to play in the 1991 Pro Bowl.
James' father, Jimmy, also played at Bethel and Ohio State, where he was a running back. In '81, Jimmy was chosen Most Valuable Player in the Liberty Bowl after leading Ohio State to a win against a George Welsh-coached Navy team.
"To be honest, I feel like they expected it," said James regarding his family's reaction to his development on the field. "Even though I can tell my father is excited, I feel like he's not surprised, and neither is my grandma or my uncle. He was telling me in 10th grade I was going to play college somewhere, and I don't think I was even really playing."
James will face an intriguing test against ECU, which runs a hurry-up offense with experienced quarterback Dominique Davis at the helm.
Davis, who led the nation in completions per game (30.2) last season and who leads in the same category (37) after the first week of this season, will look to hit receivers on quick slant routes, hooks and curls, meaning it may be difficult for James to do what he has shown an aptitude for doing since the start of the spring terrorizing quarterbacks.
"It's going to come to a point in the game where he's not going to be able to pass it quick," said James, who was the only Tech player with a sack last Saturday in a 66-13 win against Appalachian State. "If they're down, he's going to have to sit in the pocket and pass. As long as we play defense like we can, we can get to the point where I can be an effective pass-rusher."
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