Overcoming a 10-0 fourth quarter deficit to beat Rutgers 13-10 in overtime on Dec. 28 helped Virgina Tech avoid its first losing season since 1992.
And Thursday's news gives coach Frank Beamer a good chance to make sure his winning ways will continue in 2013.
The 6-foot-4, 268-pound Gayle posted a career-high 43 tackles in 2012 but saw his sack numbers drop from a team-leading seven in 2011 to five, leading some to characterize his redshirt junior season as a disappointment. ACC coaches didn't agree, recognizing the talented defender as a second-team all-conference pick for the second consecutive year. Gayle is NFLDraftScout.com's No. 8 defensive end in the 2014 draft class.
Exum, a 6-1, 224-pound redshirt junior who earned second team All-ACC honors in his first season at the position, made 48 tackles and led the Hokies in passes broken up (16), interceptions (five) and forced fumbles (two). In 2011, he earned honorable mention all-conference accolades while splitting time between free safety and rover, and he led Virginia Tech with 89 tackles. Exum checks in as NFLDraftScout.com's No. 10 cornerback in the 2014 draft class.
While Beamer and the Virginia Tech faithful are thankful Thursday for the return of these two defenders, the most critical piece of next year's puzzle -- quarterback Logan Thomas -- has not yet made his intentions clear. Thomas, like Gayle and Exum, requested a grade from the NFL Advisory Committee.
Considering Thomas' imposing 6-6, 260-pound frame, big arm and powerful running style, it's easy to see why talent evaluators could fall in love with his upside, especially considering the relative lack of help he received on offense. While Thomas only threw two more touchdowns (18) than interceptions (16) last season, he also led the team with nine rushing scores and accounted for 3,500 of Virginia Tech's 4,898 all-purpose yards.
Logan is clearly a significant work in progress; he struggled with consistency and accuracy throughout his junior season. But he possesses a skill-set that every NFL coach would love to work with, which is why he ranks sixth on NFLDraftScout.com's list of the 2014 quarterback class, ahead of more polished passers like San Jose State's David Fales, Fresno State's Derek Carr and Washington's Keith Price.
Thomas, who saw his numbers drop in virtually every statistic this year after a breakout 2011 season in which he completed 59.8 percent of his passes and scored 30 touchdowns, acknowledged that he has a long way to go.
“There's still a lot of work to do. There's no doubt about it,” Thomas told reporters when asked of his looming decision. “Consistency is a big thing for me. I wasn't consistent throughout the year, and that's where, when you go to the next level, you've got to be consistent at all times. ... I don't think I could go in and start an NFL game right now and be fine and come out with a win, so I think I need some work to be done. But that comes with practice.”
Thomas, like all of the other underclassmen considering making the early jump to the NFL, has until Jan. 15 to alert the league of his intentions.
The players who have already announced they will be heading to the 2013 NFL Draft can be viewed here.