Well we have had a couple of days to tamp down the excitement and the exhausting nature of the Spring Game Day. That's a good thing since often we get lost in the "instant" thrill or disappointment of the moment, and sometimes it takes a little while for some of the realities to sort themselves out; with time comes a bit of clarity.
So I have some observations and some summaries of how things look as the academic year closes, and the long wait for August and in particular September starts to gain its dull inertia.
Let's start with the defense, because there were some real holes to fill on this one. The defensive line had the greatest percentage of departing seniors. Fortunately, the Hokies aren't putting up inexperienced replacements. Nigel Williams, Vinny Mihota, Woody Baron, Ken Ekanem, Ricky Walker, and Seth Dooley are all game experienced. Saturday, they were joined by two stand-out additions, Houshun Gaines** and Tim Settle. Both Gaines and Settle cemented their place in the two deep, especially Gaines with his 2 "sacks" (ok two-hand butt slaps) made folks stand up and notice. The offensive line had all they could handle and then some from the new stars, especially in the B-Gap (Tackle to End out area) Gaines was routinely in the backfield, and every snap that he played looked like he was serious about getting noticed. Settle wasn't flashy; and Nose Tackles generally aren't folks. He was THERE, though. And by "THERE" I mean he was doing what the Nose is supposed to do in either the off-shifted one gap, or the on center two gap techniques. He was eating space, shutting down holes and pushing the "A gap" right back into the quarterback's lap to deal with.
Tech's defensive line looks like there are going to be 7 players that all can start, and all can produce. That's basically a full 2 deep, because Steve Sobczak looks like a competitor. Having 2 complete defensive lines to switch in and out will allow this year's Hokies a better opportunity to control the line of scrimmage and put ‘natural' pressure on the backfield. That allows the Linebackers to tend to things that they should be doing; which includes containing running quarterbacks and shutting down 2nd level break away runs. It also means getting into pass coverage underneath the zone to help generate more defensive stops on 3rd downs.
That brings us to the linebackers. The big change from last year looks like Tremaine Edmunds has become a full participant in the middle of the field with Andrew Motuapuaka. It was a bit difficult to tell, and without an official position depth chart, sorting out who was the Backer and who was the Mike was a bit difficult at times. This is an interesting, very good, development. Spotting the Mike linebacker and where he lines up is a critical read key for the Quarterback when the offense begins the play at the line of scrimmage. If you have a Mike and a Backer who are capable of playing either position as a matter of signal calling and technique swapping, then there is one more critical variable introduced to the equation of actually running a play. It also presents an offensive play calling scheme problem for the OC. The ideal is to put the Mike in a position to defend a pass outside of the edge of the zone, or get him to commit to the blitz and pass into the hole in the zone that his action leaves.
With Edmunds and Motuapuaka being capable of both functions (and Motuapuaka came close to snagging a stray ball) there will be a shift back to Coach Foster's traditional 4-2-5 defense. He won't have to rely on the 4-1-6 and 4-0-7 configurations from last season. I don't look for those off brand defensive formations to go way, though. I look for them to be mixed into the regular formations to provide some difficult to plan for variations. In addition to Edmunds and Motuapuaka, two other linebackers stepped it up big for their parting shots at 2015. Jamieon Moss and Mike McDonald netted 11 tackles between them. Actually, I counted 7 (stats were unofficial folks) Moss tackles. I might be off, but for a Spring Game with squad related limited field time, that's going to attract attention. Anthony Shegog officially moved to Linebacker from the Secondary so he's going to see some interesting changes in play style with a position more appropriate to his skills demonstrated last season. There is one added benefit to having a complete and capable linebacker corps and that's spying the running Quarterbacks and limiting their ability to gash the defense. We'll have to see how that develops; it was the defense's greatest weakness over the last few seasons. Fixing it is critical.
That brings us to the special sort of experience Swiss cheese that constitutes the Tech secondary. The first thing to notice was the blurring of position status for several players on the first published roster. Chuck Clark and Greg Stroman are both listed as Defensive Backs (along with redshirt Freshman Tyrone Thornton). That becomes a head scratch because both Clark and Stroman are known quantities at Safety. Terrell Edmonds and Adonis Alexander** are both experienced (one year anyway) Strong Safety/Whip/Rover players. As the Whip and Rover have blended over the past few seasons, leaving the name more of a technique label, this group might be blended in with the other DB labeled group.
In any event there weren't many challenges issued for the downfield defenders on this particular ‘game". There weren't many deep routes run, and certainly few targeted. A Free Safeties Greene and Reynolds weren't even readily apparent on the field. Most plays there was only a single Safety over and the action developed inside of 30 yards, whether it was a pass or a run. This group is fairly well seasoned, and brings both ball hawking skills and run stopping to the box. The Spring Game didn't do much to challenge the former, though there was a good deal of running to test the latter.
That was the cheese part of the defensive backfield equation. Now we have to deal with the air part of the Swiss. The Cornerback situation for the Hokies is worrisome to say the least. It is worrisome enough that Adonis Alexander** played more than a few snaps at CB. I would anticipate that more of those sorts of moves will be made with the faster Safeties. The modern defense relies heavily in the ability of a Cornerback to cover one on one from the line of scrimmage to the end of the play with a minimum of help. The "Tampa Two" variation defense is falling by the wayside as more offenses are designed to cut it apart by cutting underneath the extra Safety over. This means moving the Strong Safety to more of an extra Rover to cover the run and switch zone responsibilities for patterns less than 10 yards deep.
Cornerbacks must be able to step up to the line of scrimmage, disrupt the pattern start by either giving a false indicator or flat out hitting the receiver within the five yard limit, pivoting and covering behind the inside hip of the receiver toward the QB. This is difficult for most players to do, that's why Cornerbacks earn their scholarships in college. Not being caught in the wrong position, without an idea of where the ball is coming from, or where it is in the air is functionally critical to Cornerback play, and something that we have been lacking for nearly the last decade. It's a difficult position to master, and few actually do it. That's why so many defenses still deploy mostly zone coverage. It is also why the fast-paced, quick-out and under the zone passing defense is so successful. It's specifically designed to destroy zone coverage. The defensive secondary is going to be challenged this year, and how it responds will largely determine the defense's success.
Spring Games are mostly defensive shows, in my humble opinion anyway. The defense knows the offense. The offense can't do much from the playbook (especially early in the learning cycle) to disguise or audible on plays. The defense will have heard it all, and seen most of it if not all of it a dozen times a day. The key to analyzing this game is not statistics; but individual performances and how each player reacted to specifically planned situations.
Tech's defense played a pretty good game, but probably could have done better in several areas. The Quarterbacks were still able to scramble on broken plays or delayed options for first downs or Schedule Plus yardage. As was mentioned before, there were very few deep balls thrown to challenge the deeper route coverage. The defensive line play was consistently good, and sometimes even bridged into "I can't wait to see them against Tennessee excellence."
We'll leave the stats to the people who collect them like trading cards. Let us, here, look at the story and how it unfolds from a player and scheme perspective. Right now, Bud Foster's defense is looking like it has possibilities for the Fall. It was a good outing for them.
** Late Note: Houshun Gains and Adonis Alexander have been suspended indefinitely for Violation of team rules (arrests for possession of marijuana and Gaines added BAC of .058 and drinking underage to the mix.)