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D-Picket! D-Picket! D-Picket! The Hokies Defensive Line Challenge

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A look at the injury depleted Hokie Defensive Line. And are physical size and parking lot puddle depth serious problems?

Dadi's coming back for some more Hokie football in 2015.
Dadi's coming back for some more Hokie football in 2015.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

There is a current theory of defensive football that has minimized the formation coverage and strength of the defensive line. Defenses are moving toward faster linebacker sized players, and reducing the number of "big men" on the line. The 3-4, in particular the 3-4 practiced by the accolades of Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau, are studies in the use of defensive backs and linebackers as primary defenders.  Most college systems don’t run the 3-4.  They don’t because the huge down linemen, especially the Nose Tackle, just cannot be gathered by the average college program.  Then in all practicality the Defensive Line ends up playing largely like a 4-3 anyway.  Even in the pros, a 4th "lineman" –this time an extra Mike or Backer - to execute rushing duties is required.  In LeBeau’s system we saw several seasons of Jason Worilds playing a rushing OLB/DE hybrid position.

The college game has mostly retained the four man line.   The traditional positions for a four man defensive line are as follows:

Defensive Guard – Interior defensive line position from the dawn of football until the 1980’s – this position was usually the smaller of the men with their knuckles in the turf.  The position was traditionally played at around the 260-290 size range and the players ranged in the 6’ to 6’3" range.  Defensive guards were run stuffers, hole fillers, and interior run defenders.  The Defensive guard’s principle pass responsibilities were driving the ‘A’ gap into the QB’s lap; and then giving him nowhere to "step up" into the pocket.  The D-Guard position dropped from two, down to one, and then eventually disappeared in most defenses by the 1980’s but the responsibilities didn’t change; they just transferred to the next position, Defensive Tackle.  The core responsibilities have been taken over by the Nose Tackle position in 3-4 defenses.

Defensive Tackle – Intermediate defensive line position, Tackles traditionally lined up roughly around their opposite Tackle position from the Offensive line.  The size has tended to shade to be taller than 6’3" and preferably as close to 300 as possible without losing mobility.  Their run responsibilities were the same as any lineman, fill the hole, penetrate the gaps, pursue the runner, and keep the running game off schedule.  Their pass rushing responsibilities were the big change.  Tackles cover the B/A boundary, and often shift around to use key reads and leverage to put pressure on the quarterback and work to collapse the pocket into the QB.  The ideal tackle will produce a respectable number of sacks, at or behind the line of scrimmage stops, and contain perform the intermediate containment for a balanced pass rush on mobile QBs.

Defensive End – The DE is the outside "down" lineman where the "paw" might or might not be in the ground and the job is pressure, containment.  Defensive Ends look more like Mike linebackers in size and speed.  In the modern 3-4, one of them can even be a Mike sized linebacker except there is a desire for the tallest player possible to fill the role, 6’ 5" or above.  Most schemes can swap ends depending on what is the short or long side of the field, and there is often a chance that a like side end and tackle will stunt positions, or purposely trap an offensive lineman to free up a linebacker for a blitz opportunity.  The DE’s most difficult job on the pass rush is to provide outside containment with rushing quarterbacks, instead of over committing and taking themselves out of the defensive play opportunity.

Here is an example of a G-Line defensive 4-3 formation.  (I have eliminated the Defensive backfield positions except for the Rover if the Rover is playing up in a balanced formation either ready to blitz or pick up a receiver over loaded on the strong side of the formation.  Normally for passing situations the Rover would be in the top middle of the diagram on the edge between the Whip and the Mike.

4_4_Gap_Line_Defense_jpg

4 - 4 Gap Line Defense

As is often the case, Bud Foster has messed with a certain amount of tradition, some of that was purely intentional and some of it was adaptive and based on what personnel he had available.  The current positions for defensive linemen are; Stud, Nose, Tackle, and End.   His big innovation was the implementation of the "G" or Gap Front formation.  Foster shifted the defensive line toward the weak-side of the Offensive formation, pushing the End out beyond the exposed OT.  The Tackle Takes a traditional position somewhere between the weak-side OT and OG, the Nose position can line up anywhere in that "three technique" window between the guards, and the Stud plays the strong side Tackle position sometimes pushing out, sometimes pinching in, depending on the Nose position.

Just to give you a general idea of where things line up in the jumble of men, shifting across the defensive line, please take a look at the diagram.  Please remember that it’s really simple, I have blocked out a Slot Left Power ‘I’ formation for the offense (OK.ok.. some folks just call this an ‘I’ but I come from a time when Power ‘I’ meant having a Fullback and Tailback stacked directly behind the QB), without setting up a motion or any sort of play dynamics.  It’s just to give you the idea of how the defensive line in a Gap formation looks, and where the players would be playing given a basic play.  The gaps change, sometimes the Stud will flip with the End so that they are playing on opposite sides of the formation.  The same thing can happen on the interior of the line.  What’s interesting is that most fans don’t really pick up or notice the shifting around of the defensive players as much.  Since the offensive line usually retains its core shape, and very rarely do we see a Left Tackle swap positions with a Right Tackle, or line up on the other side of the formation (an unbalanced line) we don’t really concentrate on taking notes on the fact that Dadi might be on the right side of the formation for a few plays, and then end up on the left side for a particular situation.

The Spring Roster for filling the defensive line positions is as follows:

Number

Name

Exp

Position - Depth

Height

Weight

Year

43

Seth Dooley

1

DE - End 1

6' 5"

242

r-So

93

Jeremy Haynes

-

DE - End 2

6' 3"

221

r-Jr

87

Harry Boston

-

DE - End 3

6' 1"

224

r-Fr

90

Dadi Nicolas

3

DE - Stud 1

6' 4"

236

r-Sr

8

Melvin Keihn

1

DE - Stud 2

6' 1"

211

So

97

Laird Gardner

-

DE - Stud 3

6' 1"

232

r-Jr

60

Woody Baron

2

DT - Nose 1

6' 1"

265

Jr

99

Vinny Mihota

-

DT - Nose 2

6' 5"

270

r-Fr

95

Nigel Williams

2

DT - Tackle 1

6' 2"

288

r-Jr

98

Ricky Walker

1

DT - Tackle 2

6' 3"

286

So

91

Steve Sobczak

-

DT - Tackle 3

6' 2"

315

r-Fr

The following players are out for various injury reasons, but all are considered the actual starters in their positions:

Number

Name

Exp

Position - Depth

Height

Weight

Year

4

Ken Ekanem

2

DE - End

6' 3"

243

r-Jr

96

Corey Marshall

3

DT - Nose

6' 2"

262

r-Sr

92

Luther Maddy

3

DT - Tackle

6' 1"

293

r-Sr

As of April 6, the late news is that Yosuah Nijman has been moved to the Offensive Line, which is probably best for both him and the near future O-Line which we have already discussed is seriously undersized and undermanned.

69

Yosuah Nijman

-

Transferred to OL

6' 7"

265

Fr

Once again, I peruse the height and weight columns of the charts and get hit by a wave of light air.  We have five players who barely fit within the general specifications of a good sized linebacker.   This lack of size in the Tackle, Nose, and Stud positions presents serious challenges to stopping the running game, especially a power running game out of a more classic ‘T’ or ‘I’ formation with the quarterback under center.

If the Rover isn't played as the Second Whip/OLB, and remains a Strong Safety playing in the back side of the defensive formation, it is difficult for this defense to stop runs within the 4 yard schedule target, and nearly impossible to do it when the Offensive line is a big drive blocking offense.  Speed and movement get you many things, but in football brute force has a quality all of its own.

Three-fourths of Tech’s first string is not present for the Spring practice season.  The depth and size at the Nose position is concerning, in fact everyone less than 265 pounds is a serious problem on a Division 1A D-Line.  This defense must play heads up, lights out football to control the line of scrimmage, and the immediate zone behind the line.   The 2nd and 3rd strings are not going to be able to play as hole stuffing run stoppers, and unfortunately if caught off guard will get gashed for serious yardage.

That means that this line is going to have to guess, and they’d better guess right.   The first team should be big and fast enough to challenge most of the delayed action, sprint draw runs from the shotgun/pistol formations.  Experienced upperclassmen Nicholas, Marshall, Maddy, and Ekanem were looking very competent at the end of last season.  However, should we lose any one starter; the D-Line could struggle against a power running team.   A determined drive blocking Offensive line will seek to push the lighter defenders off the line, and settle for the schedule 4 to 5 yard runs.

What concerns me is that realistic practice is essential to make this scheme based on lighter faster personnel work.  Unfortunately the starting offensive line, and any practice squad lines are all equally small and inexperienced.   There will be a false impression given where an undersized, undermanned pair of opposing squads look really good against each other, but run into a meat grinder in the Fall.

Next up: Running Backs, and perhaps some peeks at the Quarterback issue.