BLACKSBURG ——James Gayle doesn't remember the exact moment it happened, but sometime in March, everything Virginia Tech assistant coach Cornell Brown was telling him about what to look for in film study started to click.
Now, as Tech continues its spring practice sessions, Gayle is putting all of Brown's advice to good use. Before Brown's arrival in late February, it's not a stretch to say Gayle got about as much out of film analysis as he did out of Saturday morning cartoons — very little.
"I didn't really know what to look for. Things like where the offensive tackle is looking — if he's looking at me, he's going to (engage) me. If he's looking at a linebacker, (the tackle) is going to do something different. So many things I didn't see before."
An added bonus for Gayle is that watching film with Brown means Gayle gets to watch film of Brown from time-to-time. Brown, who is Tech's new outside linebackers and assistant defensive line coach, was one of the greatest defensive players in Hokie history and earned All-America honors in 1995 and '96 as a defensive end.
In addition to Brown, Gayle has studied film of former productive Tech ends like Darryl Tapp, fellow Bethel alum Chris Ellis, Corey Moore and John Engelberger. It's part of a desire to improve, which Gayle said he assumed shortly after Tech's 40-12 loss to Stanford in the Orange Bowl.
He set his sights on getting up to 265 pounds by the end of the summer. He also wanted to assemble the proper tools in terms of knowledge of the position, strength and speed to amass at least 10 sacks next season. Last season, he played in all 14 games — starting two — and finished with four sacks.
When he found out Tech's coaches planned to move Chris Drager back to tight end from the defensive end position he'd manned for the last two years, Gayle realized opportunity was staring him in the face.
Gayle started his preparation in February by posting some astonishing weight room numbers, including a 366-pound power clean (new Tech record for defensive ends — previously held by Phoebus High alum Nathaniel Adibi) and a bench press of 420 pounds, which tied for third-best among Gayle's current teammates.
"I think this is a very important time for me going into the season," Gayle said. "I knew after they moved Drager that I was the definite starter. If it hadn't been for that, I'd have probably had to battle it out with (Tech defensive end) J.R. (Collins)."
Brown believes there's some hyperbole involved in Gayle's assessment of what Brown has meant to his development. Brown thinks of himself more as a guy that has come along at the perfect time, right as Gayle has started to morph into a more complete player.
"I don't think it's really me," Brown said. "I think it's more him, and just the evolution of a player. He was a guy that wanted to get on the field and contribute basically in any factor last year. Now, after getting on the field and having that success, that's a big factor in wanting to improve and be the player he showed last year that he can be."
As it stands, Gayle and Collins are projected to be Tech's starters at the end spots when it opens the season Sept. 3 against Appalachian State in Blacksburg. Earning the starting job is fine, but Gayle has greater ambitions.
"I don't feel like there's any pressure on me," Gayle said. "I'm looking forward to it more than I feel like I'm under any pressure. To be honest, I want more than 10 sacks. I feel like that's the minimum I should get. I'm trying to be modest."