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The Men in the Middle of the Hokies Defense

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Spring 2015 Virginia Tech Linebacker Outlook The key word is youth and the key reality is inexperience

Hokie Linebackers at Work
Hokie Linebackers at Work
Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Before we get into the Spring linebacker situation, it might be useful to get a grip on just what a linebacker is within the Bud Foster defensive scheme.  There are published definitions of what a linebacker is, and how he's supposed to play, but here are my general "Old School" categories and characteristics: (From the well-thumbed virtual book "TMF's 50 Years of Loving Football")

  1. Middle Linebacker "Mike" - 230-250 pounds, 4.6 speed range, and somewhere between 6' and 6' 4". The middle linebacker is the defensive captain, his primary job is to stop the run by using his quickness and size to fill gaps, pursue, and keep runs down to the 2-3 yard range.  If he covers passes, he does so underneath the zone in crossing routes, and rarely comes out of the box.
  2. Strong Side Linebacker "Sam" - Same as middle linebacker though maybe shaded to the 230 and less to the 250 size.  He is definitely a run stopper and often has blitzing responsibilities as he had the middle linebacker will often trade looks and keys.
  3. Weak Side linebacker "Will" - 210-220 pound category, preferably tall (in the 6'4" range) he needs 4.5 speed, and must be able to cover the back side zone, and the running back coming out of the backfield.  He's not primarily a run stopper, but is definitely a weak side blitz threat in a dime package.
  4. Strong Safety - 190-200 pounds when a safety is loaded into the box, and has run responsibility or blitzing duty, he essentially becomes a light quick linebacker with a run stop responsibility.  He's got to be as fast as any defensive back (because he's still primarily responsible for pass protection in a bunch of play situations, but he's got to hit above his weight; and have his head on a swivel to really understand where he needs to commit within the first second and a half of the play.

Ok, those are the classic football linebacker positions, so how do those four positions fit into Bud Foster's flexible 4-2-5 defensive scheme?

In run situations, Foster runs a 4-3-4 with the Middle Linebacker - (Mike), the Strong Side Linebacker or Weakside linebacker (Backer) and an Outside Linebacker (Whip) cheating up toward the box, or playing completely in the box.  The Whip and the Backer have a primary bias toward the run, but have zone coverage assignments if the play ends up a pass.  This is match up disaster for the Defense if the Offense can isolate a Whip on someone with some pass catching skill, since the Backer is generally going to get a tight end or the strong side underneath zone.

In passing situations the 4-3-4 looks more like a pure 4-2-5, with the Mike and Backer playing the run, and definitely looking for blitz opportunities... but the Whip position turns into a second Rover and becomes an extra Safety. (I have seen this switch many times, on the field with the same player shifting playing responsibilities) The Rover can definitely be a complete pain for an offense, especially if he has good ball and play recognition skills and can work with a Corner to perform a loose double team off of a man to man, with a zone over.   Dime Rovers can be pick machines if played right.

Given the ideal configuration for a 4-3-4/4-2-5 defense, we can now jump to what we have for Spring, and what Coach Foster might be trying to accomplish before everyone breaks for Summer and more idle pursuits like final exams, papers, and cram sessions.

The following is a roster mash up between the current Spring Depth chart, and roster:

Spring 2015 Hokie Linebacker Roster

Num

Name

Exp.

Position-Depth

Height

Weight

Year

40

Deon Clarke

1

Backer - 1

6' 2"

213

Sr

18

Raymon Minor

-

Backer - 2

6' 2"

219

r-Fr

50

Jamieon Moss

1

Backer - 2

6' 1"

211

r-So

48

Josh Eberly

-

Backer - 3

5' 7"

220

r-Jr

54

Andrew Motuapuaka

1

Mike - 1

6' 0"

223

r-So

44

Carson Lydon

-

Mike - 2

6' 2"

241

Fr

45

Drew Burns

1

Mike - 3

6' 3"

219

r-Jr

53

Trent Young

-

Mike - 4

5' 10"

218

r-Fr

56

Sean Huelskamp

1

Mike - 5

6' 1"

202

r-So

37

Ronny Vandyke

2

Whip - 1

6' 4"

219

r-Sr

29

Holland Fisher

-

Whip - 2

6' 1"

180

r-Fr

35

Quinton Taylor

Whip - 3

6' 1"

220

r-Jr

38

Johnathan Galante

Whip - 4

5' 11"

202

r-So

42

Mike Wandey

Whip - 5

5' 11"

218

r-So

The 2015 Spring Linebacking corps has enough people to give the three positions quite a respectable depth quality.  The main run game concern is that the Backers and Mikes are players who are both light on experience and weight.   Shedding blocks at the second level takes experience.  Making the stop in the box for little or no gain takes mass.  There is an additional issue with size when rushing the passer in ‘A' gap blitz situations.  Smaller Mikes and Backers generally need some stunt and gap control help from the Defensive Line to get effective blitz pressure between the Guards.

At Backer from bottom to top, we have three players, who are just barely large enough, competing.   We are a little closer to full up at Mike but no one stands out as a traditional Middle Linebacker sized player.   All five Mikes on the depth chart will have to play at least 15 to 20 pounds less than what one might like a MLB to be.  The depth at Whip is not bad in the evaluation of player mass, with Vandyke doing his best Cam Chancellor impression.

So, we are looking at a four year spread of linebackers where two starters are some form of Senior, and the bulk of the roster looking very light on actual game experience.  It is critical to note that not one Whip below Ronny Vandyke has marked more than a ‘-‘ in the Experience column.  We are not much better off at Backer and Mike, where Backer is the thinnest position (and I suspect some rotating and repositioning moves will be made in the future.)

The cold slap of reality shows that the Virginia Tech Spring 2015 Linebacking corps is lighter than ideal, a bit on the short side, and not very experienced in game conditions.  The question that keeps popping into my mind is "So, what else is new?" This is the Hokies, and Bud Foster's defenses have never impressed on the height and weight charts.

Barring some injury, the depth chart will probably be the same for the season opener.   The starters look like Motuapuaka, Clarke, and Vandyke; but Spring is where we will look to see who starts challenging.   It would be really nice to see if more Dime configurations with two Rovers (one real, one Whip playing Rover) are in the mix.

I am also hearing early reports on the new player, Carson Lydon, and his striking resemblance to Luke Kuechly in size, speed, aggressiveness and play quality.  High School is not often a full indicator of the potential impact of a player, but this young man graduated early, is a True Freshman - enrolled in January, and is listed as a legitimate 2 for the Mike position.  He's going to be interesting to watch and might not wear a red shirt this year.

What is going to be even more of a challenge is that an increasing number of college offenses are wide open pass heavy option-read/read-option type system affairs.  The traditional run stopping Whip is often gets caught coming up into the box leaving an uncovered receiver while challenging a weak side run or blitzing, only to have a pass launched over his head to a slot receiver or tight end running a drag route.

I am also looking to see how Tech is going to cover the 2nd level gaps on running plays with such a light interior.  Of course it is Tech's offense, and runners getting to the 2nd level are rare occurrences, anymore.

There is one other team function to note, here.  All of the Linebackers, especially the Whip and Backer positions, are very important to the Special Teams effort.  Last year's Spring Game was not a big Special Teams event.  I can understand the reticence to run full speed kickoffs and punts, given the risk of injury on those particular plays, but Special Teams is where young inexperienced players can get some field time.  We really need to look at the non-designated Special Teams players.  Beamer Ball depends on them being better than the last few seasons.

Even with our lack of experience in the defensive mid field, we have one advantage that few folks have; Coach Bud Foster.  It might take a few games to get everything sorted out, but the tools are there for a typical Hokie Linebacker corps;  20 pounds too light at each position, and constantly needing to play over its collective head.  You can take that any way that you will.  All comments and observations are more than welcomed.

Next up... Receivers... Wide, Slot, and Tight End - with maybe some RB's to spice things up a bit.