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What do you do for a “Bye”? The Virginia Tech Hokie Defense

So we looked at what the offense might consider working on. Let’s look at the defense. It’s a bit bigger set of issues, and the worst of which is the Georgia Tech offense is like nothing else we face in any season.

So, we talked about the relatively easy part of our suggested “bye” week adjustments first. Not that some of it rolled off the tongue easily or spelled itself out into flowing prose, either. There is just the reality that the Virginia Tech Offense is actually good this season and steadily getting better. It’s just a matter of tying up some loose ends, and getting the play calling straightened out.

The defense is a completely different story. There are some really good players on the field, and they are really attracting some attention. Rayshard Ashby is picking up where Andrew Motuapuaka left off. He’s our tackling machine. Dylan Rivers and Dax Hollifield have been pleasant surprises. Both have contributed a great deal. There have been a couple of rough spots, and some tackling issues but most of those problems are key reads, body positioning, and gap reaction. That sort of stuff comes with experience. Not many people remember the difficulties that Andrew had, in the flying mane of hair days, getting off of blocks and anticipating where the play was going to go. With the haircut and experience came the change. The Tech starting linebackers (all three being “rookies”) all look like they are going to come along right nicely.

The defensive line is a bit of a conundrum. Ricky Walker and Jerrod Hewitt have combined to gum up most plays between the tackles. It’s been a bit frustrating seeing way to much “gumming” and not enough tackling though. Both need to keep better track of where the rock is going, and while the speed is down, get those big arms and hands wrapped around something that slows the runner down or pulls him to the turf. Too many runs in the UNC game broke to the diffuse 2nd level because the first level acted too much like pinball bumpers. This is something that the films will have driven home. Both of these players are really good, and take great pride in their capabilities. Robert Porcher IV, TyJuan Garbutt, and Xavier Burke have also been checking in with productive line work at various positions. Their inside tackling issues are likely to get some serious address in this week. Overall the tackling stats for the interior and DE’s playing interior techniques are still too low.

Now to the line’s gold and lead; lately, there seems to have been a slight attitude adjustment on the ends. Houshun “House” Gaines has brought his game up to the next level. He’s beginning to dominate the outside pass rush lane, and his critical sack to basically end the UNC game was a prime example of that “stepping up”. Emmanuel Belmar has been notched in to replace Hill, but there is this odd wrinkle in the mix. Suddenly we are seeing three men down, and Belmar bailing into coverage, or not, or lining up with a paw in the grass, and looking like a pass rusher, but breaking back to the flat to cover a back or tight end. This is actually taking advantage of the reality that like so many other Tech Defensive Ends before him, Belmar is actually an outside linebacker in a 3-4. So if that’s the gold, where is the lead? With lack of experience and lots of adrenaline comes lots of tunnel vision, over pursuit, and taking the wrong angle (a.k.a. - getting caught inside on a containment assignment). There have been several critical break away runs deep in the opponents’ ends when there was no containment cap on the line. Crashing to the inside to grab a passer deep in the pocket sounds like a great move, but when the QB delays and blows by the rush there is no one left in that hole to cover. The same thing goes for a running back who cuts to the outside of an inside over rush by the end, and there is no covering Linebacker or Whip off the End’s outside hip to protect the hole. Tech’s defensive ends need to learn to read where the linebacker is before deciding to break inside. Breaking containment is killing us this season and has to get fixed this week or it’s going to continue to be a weak spot that every OC will hammer.

There is no mystery as to where the most difficult task in addressing the defensive woes of the Hokies sits. There is a whole lot of talent out in the defensive hinterlands otherwise known as the secondary; there is no real level of experience, either. There are just no two ways about it, on critical pass plays where the front two units have kept their end of the bargain and held the opposing offense to less than schedule yardage, the secondary gets hammered on 3rd and long, too often. There is the field magic of a shortening zone as the opponent approaches the red zone, and the Hokies’ red zone defense has been nothing less than stellar for most of the season. But that’s not the point. Ideally the defense doesn’t allow the opposition to get beyond the Hokie 40, and frankly most coaches don’t want to see the opponent passing the 50. Field position is still a big part of the game, and digging out of your own end for a score is a rare thing. Well, that’s the critical job of the defensive secondary as deployed by Bud Foster. The traditional 4-2-5 depends on the Whip and Rover positions being flexible, alert, and athletic enough to play both the coverage role and the Will linebacker position. The current defense is greatly hindered by the injury issues to Divine Deablo. Deablo is a Rover/Whip sized Free Safety (the classic Safety position in Foster’s defensive formation) but he’s big and hits hard. (Reminds me of Cam Chancellor on some days) Divine is also a critical leader in that backfield. Without him back there, the pass defense struggles to keep plays in front of them, and the run support has trouble keeping up. The help is on the way up, but it’s taking time. Caleb Farley is still very raw at the job. He can cover zone stuff pretty well, but he’s still got growing pains when trying to get his hips turned and head cranked around when in man coverage. Bryce Watts and Tyree Rodgers are each a half step slower (no shame because a healthy Farley is a man with an afterburner AND another gear.) The problems are completely discipline, knowledge, and technique. There aren’t too many people in the world who can teach those better than Bud Foster. It’s a patience sort of thing for Hokie Nation. We are just going to chew through lots of fingernails while the secondary gets it all together.

So what’s the point in all of this? The point is that the fundamentals that need work still need work, but on Thursday night, the offense that the Hokies face is the bane of Hokie existence. Justin Fuente has yet to beat Paul Johnson. The first effort was an offensive fiasco for Virginia Tech. The Defense managed to keep things contained and rational, but the offense - even as good as it was in 2016, was just not operating that evening. In 2017 the offense was already operating in crippled mode, with JJ in the walking wounded category with his shoulder, and Cam Phillips the only experienced receiver. The O scored enough points to win, though. Last year the defense did 7/8ths of a job. The Jackets repeatedly killed us on a left side seam route ambush that gave up serious point totals. You cannot overcome the momentum killing situation of third and long, deep in Georgia Tech territory (which is where you want Johnson to be) only to lose concentration and have the Safety roll up past the danger point to cover the run. Three times I saw an assistant give a signal to the Georgia Tech QB that Terrell had snuck up past the ambush point, and three times they hit that danged pass. No one picked up on it.

Thursday, Virginia Tech needs to play a complete game. Both sides of the ball need to produce. The Offense needs to control the ball, move it, and score TOUCHDOWNS not field goals. But the Defense needs to do more. It must completely change its level of discipline and the way it plays football:

  1. The defensive line must control the A Gap and kill the “Dive” play by penetrating at least 2 yards into the backfield and flowing in the direction of the ball.
  2. There can be no over-pursuit. The back side must keep contain and follow the play with an eye toward reverses and changes in direction.
  3. The play side defensive linemen must control and shut down the B Gap “Slant” and that middle linebacker needs to resist the urge to crash early so that the outside QB sweep is converts to the pitch, and the outside linebacker has to close off the lane so the pitch is deep and the halfback gets run out of bounds for no gain or a loss. That’s the official way that I was taught, in the heyday of the triple option (1965-1975/80), to snuff out that offense.
  4. Every defender is assigned a key. Every defender must cover and execute properly against that key. The Defense must keep positive pressure on the play. If the linebackers are too far off the line of scrimmage the Slant or the Pitch will turn the corner, and the wishbone was never about getting more than 4 to 5 yards on a sweep. But Johnson knows that if you play it too loose and lose contain at the line, he can gain 4 every time that he snaps the ball. So it’s nearly always 4 down territory for him.

As to those ambush passes. Foster should invert his defensive secondary, put the corners over in place of the Safety, or invert one corner Safety combination so the Rover covers the box, and the Free Safety and one corner cover the on side pass. Georgia Tech’s QB CAN throw. Not brilliantly, but he can throw. That means some variation of 2 over at all times.

Any way you slice it, it’s completely different than any defense that we run presently. It’s going to take lots and lots of practice over the next few days. Everyone on the Defense is going to need to as Darth Hoodie The Evil Emperor Belichick reminds each of his players, “do your job”.

There’ll be more to talk about over the next few days. The ACC is going to be a bit different after the two big games this weekend; Duke vs. Hoos (Go Blue Devils!) and Clemson vs. NC State. Let’s hope that the Wolf Pack puts a dent in Clemson... I am really tired of Dabo and crew.