Fall practice has started, and the team gets padded up starting August 3. The team hasn’t been in contact practice conditions since that short period in March and April. The interesting thing is that there have been some changes that will make contact a bit heavier this season. As has been noted by Jay, the new strength and conditioning regime has changed things quite a bit.
The defensive line is heavier, but that’s muscle, folks. It looks like the players have also been doing some conditioning since I am seeing better leg definition and muscle mass. That was always a critical factor in preventing knee and ankle injuries, but lower body muscle also tends to slow a player down (or so the old saw went) so players were trained for speed below the waist and massive muscle build up in the arms and chest. I was never really sure that the practice was completely sound, and having less lower body mass didn’t help much for drive blocking. It made firing out of the hole and shoving an opposing player out of the way more difficult since even if he got under the defender’s pads the player didn’t have the leg drive to move far.
It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out for the defense. Tim Settle looks really good on the few videos that have been pushed out. Walker and Mihota will undoubtedly be well conditioned and at 100% strength. The incoming freshmen who are just getting their first exposure to the new level of training will need to work to catch up. Coach Tilgart (I’ll try to find pictures of him at the UVA game… in his polo shirt and slacks! It was COLD!!!!) has really changed the way the Hokies train off the field.
What that means is the potential of having a Bear Front – 4-2-5 defense to put on the field where the five defensive backs are all capable of playing all of the positional techniques in the defensive backfield. That means that teams will have to prepare to play a defense that has five Strong Safeties who cover like cornerbacks and hit like outside linebackers.
It also means that two experienced, strong and capable linebackers can trade techniques themselves. As we noted in the Linebacker Review, Andrew Motuapuaka and Tremaine Edmunds did a large amount of technique switching. Sometimes AM was Backer, sometimes TE was. There is also an addition to the Linebacker crew; Anthony Shegog has been moved from the defensive backs to the Backer positon. That’s an interesting development because Shegog was a capable dangerous Safety. If he’s stepped up his condition and power to the defensive midfield that means having a Backer with the ability to cover Tight Ends, and spy the running quarterbacks.
Well, there are several analytical pieces out on the web going over the five (or some significant number greater than 2 but less than too many for a good article) big challenges for various teams this season. We know the offense has some dings to overcome. The defense does, indeed, have some issues that loomed large last season that will still need address; running quarterbacks, options, personal fouls, and blown coverage assignments.
Bud Foster’s defenses have not, to date, been much good against a running Quarterback. It doesn’t matter whether that run is a scramble, an option pass that’s covered, or a stroll down a garden path, the Virginia Tech defense has spent the last decade struggling with getting QB stops on critical plays. Tennessee, Syracuse (whose QB runs were basically last gasp efforts that were never stopped), and Pitt (though we won that one), Georgia Tech, Notre Dame… Clemson - well most any opponent where the signal caller gave the ball to himself. The defensive line just couldn’t seem to keep containment and whoever was assigned to spy, if there was any spy assigned at all, just couldn’t or didn’t make the tackle. The defense was solid against pocket passers, and guys who were not going to run under any circumstances short of a flamethrower. They just never seemed to get comfortable corralling and stopping guys like, well, Jerod Evans. The situation has to be fixed this season.
The second problem comes up every time the Yellow Jackets show. The defense just doesn’t seem to be able to get their arms around stopping any variation of the triple option. Some of that is probably directly related to the issues with running QB’s, but without two weeks of prep work, the Tech defense has struggled to string out and run the option out of bounds for little or no gain. Face it, the offense is still used because it’s effective. It burns clock, yards, and defensive players. If Paul Johnson has a QB that can throw those three deep seem passes, his offense is darned near impossible to completely stop. The key has always been to string out the runs without allowing the ball carrier to cut up field. That means loading the box and covering the few pass routes that the scouts say the QB can hit. It also means that the offense is going to have to score points, and that’s something that our offense failed miserably at in last season’s game. An old coach that I knew in high school said about TC Williams, “gotta hold ‘em to three and score six, every time”. Holding the Titans to three was a darned near impossible feat in the mid to late 1970’s. Johnson’s option reminds me of that old TC Williams machine.
We really got hurt by some serious problems with penalties. The ejections from last season for targeting were probably not fair. The coach won’t complain too loudly because it’s impolitic – see the CTE article for reference if you don’t understand why that rule is going to be the death tone for defense in the future. Somehow, we need to get a serious grip on the personal fouls, targets, pass interference, and holding calls. The most difficult will always be the targeting penalties because they can be arbitrary and accidental, but still remove a player from the current game and possibly half of another. The NCAA really needs to revisit the situation, but it is unlikely to get resolved in favor of aggressive defense each time it’s visited. The emotions are running too high. Suffice it to say, the Hokies have to clean it up.
Bud Foster’s defensive coverage patterns, technique switching, and aggressive blitzing are not going to go away. They are what make Lunch Pail Defensive magic. The problem is that the players can get the wrong call, get caught out of position, or blow their coverage assignment. You can hear the challenges come to the fore at the press conferences, or catch wind of something on the sideline as the coach is trying to refocus a defensive back and give him a clue as to what he missed on the field. I will attribute most of these assignment problems with experience and strength. This season looks like it might be different. The defensive backfield and linebacker corps are intact and experienced. They’ll all have the benefit of having gotten through the early season jitters back in 2016. I said this in the DB Review, if this team is firing on all cylinders, there are going to be precious few coaches who are going to want to throw on us.
It doesn’t take much of a review to see that Virginia Tech won, last season, when the Defense got stops and turnovers in the opponent’s end. It also proved that even if the offense was struggling, that the #LPD and #DBU were more than willing to light the momentum torch.
The first few games of 2017 the Hokies are going to need to have the defense hit the field and dominate. There is a phrase in French; plus ca change, plus ca le meme chose. No matter how good the Hokie Offenses will get under Coach Fuente, it’s going to be Coach Foster’s Defense that sets the tone.