Following the 2012 season, defensive end James Gayle had an opportunity to enter the NFL Draft, but decided instead to return for his senior season with the Virginia Tech Hokies. He will reap the benefits of that decision, taking the extra year to continue his development as one of the better defensive ends in the ACC. The Hokies defense will benefit greatly from his return as well, but just how good can Gayle become next season?
He’s already put together a pretty strong resume. Last season, he recorded 43 tackles and finished second on the team with 11 tackles for loss and five sacks. He was able to bring pretty consistent pressure on the quarterback, adding nine quarterback hurries to his sack total, earning All-ACC honors in the process. With 16 career sacks coming into 2013, he’ll be looking to take the next step as a senior to become one of the premier edge rushers in the country.
The Hokies are hitching their hopes of a bounce-back campaign next fall on the strength of their defense. Much of that strength will be provided by Gayle, who is the leading returning sack-artist following the graduation of Bruce Taylor. He will be charged with being a menace off the edge and providing the pressure on opposing quarterbacks that will get the Hokies defense off the field in third-down situations.
And if he is able to raise the level of his game, he will reap the rewards by moving up the draft boards of several NFL teams next offseason. Gayle could easily be considered one of the top three defensive end prospects in the ACC heading into the 2013 season, but he’s flying under the radar in terms of the national spotlight for premier edge rushers at the 2014 NFL Draft. Can Gayle play his way into a first-round grade next fall?