So, we have seen some changes and hope in the reviews to date. The Quarterbacks and Running Backs are both heavily dependent on the success of Joe Rudolph’s coaching and restructuring of the Offensive line. That’s just one side of the equation, though. We’ll be covering the other elements of the offense coming up, but now is the time to go to the side of the ball most traditionally known as a strength for Virginia Tech and that’s the Defense.
Setting the Table
And no, we aren’t going to start with the “glamor” positions. We are going straight to the trenches. You see with the Offense, the line is 85% of the run game and 65% of the passing game, and with the Defense the line is more than half of the strength and success of the entire scheme. If the Defensive line cannot do the job, there isn’t going to be much success in stopping the opposing offense from doing just about anything that it wants to do.
The three cardinal tasks of a defensive line are:
- Control the Line of Scrimmage
- Stop the run
- Pressure the Quarterback
Note: As things progress, we’ll revisit these three tasks as the topics for grading the team’s performance after the first four games.
Those are pretty simple statements that take a tremendous amount of effort and talent to pull off, especially for the 3 to 4 players that will often be charged with accomplishing those goals. Does Pry switch between a 3-4 and a 4-3/4-4 or does he just stick with 4 men on the LOS? We’ll need an answer to that question before we get to the big “if”. Can the Defensive Line achieve these goals without linebacker support, and do it for most of the contest? If the can, the opposition is going to have a difficult time moving the ball in big chunks through the air. These tasks are pretty “tall orders”, and we’ll take a look at why as we get through this review.
The Three Big Cheeses
There are two Bud Foster acolytes on this staff, and for the Defensive Line, they might be the most important coaching interactions that they will have.
The Head Cheese
No one is fooling anybody on who is the defensive coordinator for the 2022 Virginia Tech Hokies - It’s Head Coach Brent Pry. That’s not to slight any of the other two excellent assistants involved with the D-Line, but guys like Pry play to their strengths and in new situations tend to pull comfortable functions in around them to make them feel more in control of what’s happening on the field. The loud rumors are that Pry will retain the defensive play calling responsibilities. Maybe this is wise, or maybe a tad short sighted, given that a Head Coach has very different responsibilities than Xs and Os... and that situation might be different as time wears, but for now that seems to be the plan.
Pry learned his basics carrying a clipboard and notepad for Bud back “in the day” it’s going to be a challenge for him to give that up.
The Defensive Coordinator
Coach Chris Marve is a pickup from Pry’s Vanderbilt experience. He’s young, played solid linebacker in college, and has been coaching defensive positions since he graduated in 2011. To be the DC of a major FBS program just 11 years out of school is something that folks should note. We’ll see how fast Marve gets full control of the reins once Pry figures out that his job is marketing and management - not play calling. The observations garnered from the Spring game was Marve as an energetic and enthusiastic coach on the field, where he’s currently doing what Bud did. Coaching the Linebackers along with doing the DC duties.
Given the makeup of the Defensive line this season, the Linebackers are going to have to work both angles of the defense (run and pass) until the line’s size and speed builds up. His direct involvement will be limited because of that.
“The Guy” Defensive Line Coach Edition
The man “on the spot” for the 2022 season is Associate Head Coach and Defensive Line Coach J.C. Price. There is little doubt that Coach Price is ready for that challenge. Last season, he was hired after a coaching change separation from a very long stint at Marshall (7 Seasons 7 bowls) and a prior 7 season stint at JMU which included an FCS Division 1 championship. Where we all know J.C. from is the heyday of the Virginia Tech Hokies during the mid to late 90’s and where he and Pry became acquainted. The depth of that exposure is always a teasing back story that neither coach will really answer; but suffice it to say J.C Price was one of two Hokies on the old coaching staff who made it to the new staff, and the only field coach. There is a great measure of respect there, somewhere.
That doesn’t erase the sticky spot that Coach Price will find himself in as he prepares the 2022 Hokie Defensive Line Depth chart to take to the field on the 2nd of September. The roster for both Ends and Tackles has some serious “lightness” issues. That term might be best summed up as light on most everything somewhere; size here, weight there, experience most everywhere else. Price probably has the most difficult coaching processes of anyone on the staff, ahead of him.
The Line Forms Shortly - FOR REAL
Let’s take a look at the projected dept chart and some observations to the effect for each player.
2022 Hokie Defensive Line
|41||Jaylen Griffin||DE||6' 1"||264||R-Sr.||1||Has the same level of experience as a #2 coming into games - 3 total starts excellent #2 with step up to 1 potential|
|45||TyJuan Garbutt||DE/T||6' 1"||252||R-Sr.||1||Garbutt has some of the best experience coming out of the 2021 season - a bit short for outside but fast, experienced, and studied|
|46||Eli Adams||DE||5' 11"||235||R-Jr.||2-1||Adams has been a complement to Griffin as a capable #2 who can start if need be - still short and light for a DE|
|94||Nigel Simmons||DE||6' 2"||260||R-Jr.||3||Simmons has been lightly utilized over the last three seasons - he has a chance to make an impression this year|
|91||Wilfried Pene||DE||6' 3"||253||So.||2-3||Pene has the potential to step up big this season - he played some quality snaps with good contact and stats in 2021|
|93||Cole Nelson||DE||6' 3"||238||So.||3||Played in 11 games in 2021 mostly special teams - he's still on the light side but as the speed rusher he might make a showing|
|56||C.J. McCray||DE||6' 3"||221||R-Fr.||3||Played in 4 games in 2021 - registered some tackles - and even played some snaps from the LOS another player a bit too light for DE|
|90||Mattheus Carroll||DE||6' 5"||232||R-Fr.||2||Played some snaps in 2021 special teams and a few games - has tall enough and fast enough on his side|
|Defensive Tackles (Nose)|
|3||Norell Pollard||T/N||6' 0"||281||Jr.||1||There are many DEs and not enough Ts - Pollard is too short for an outside so Nose is thebetter position for him|
|22||Mario Kendricks||T/N||6' 0"||290||Jr.||2||The same goes for Kendrick - Big enough but too short to play in the 'B' Gap consistently|
|6||Josh Fuga||N||6' 2"||308||R-So.||1||Fuga is a run stuffing Nose Tackle and can play outside reasonably well - Look for him to start|
|95||Desmond Mamudi||DT||6' 3"||296||R-Fr.||2||Short of a Freshman like Givens or Moore getting traction and regular snaps both|
|99||Maxx Philpott||N||6' 0"||306||R-Fr.||2||Mamundi and Philpott will need to be ready to play|
|32||Gunner Givens||T/DE||6' 5"||270||Fr.||3-2||Givens might play or they might give him a redshirt and put him in the weight room to gain 20 - He might be a perfect solution for the True Tackle position|
|54||Malachi Madison||N/T||6' 3"||310||Fr.||3||Redshirt - but all effort will be made to max out availability due to depth issues|
|55||Lemar Law, Jr.||T/N||6' 5"||280||Fr.||3||Redshirt - but will probably suit up for the maximum of 4 games, too|
|61||Braelin Moore||N/T||6' 3"||290||Fr.||3-2||Moore might actually play and start by some time in the season - his redshirt potential is pretty low|
The Defensive End Situation
The probable starters on the ends will end up being Tyjuan Garbutt and Jaylen Griffin, with Garbutt holding down the “Stud End” and Griffin the other outside, but there is a rumor to the effect that the DE or Speed Rush position might be up for grabs this season, at least for the first few games, anyway. The Hokies have Matteus Carroll challenging hard for the speed rush end - he’s still light, but plenty tall and has some speed to go with it. If he can pick up the major elements of the need to contain the outside from QB escapes, Carroll could seriously challenge the #1 spot, and will probably play a whole lot of snaps this season.
That’s not the half of it. The entire DE roster has some real time experience and some serious opportunities to make contributions this season. Eli Adams, Nigel Simmons Wilfried Pene, Cole Nelson, and C.J. McCray all have some good game experience and all of them except Nigel Simmons have some reasonable height. Where they are “light” is in the critical area of physical size. When a defensive lineman is below 250 pounds, there is often a mass versus leverage problem that happens in the box that limits their other qualities. Tech only has four Defensive Ends in the 250 plus weight class and that’s going to be a coaching and technique challenge for Price.
Two Tackles - Two Type Challenges
There are several different types of tackle positions in any defense. In the 3-4 there is only one tackle and that’s the Nose. The tackle might line up anywhere from Guard to Guard - in the right or left A gap, or on the Center like the position’s name suggests. We saw several instances of a 3-4 or 3-3 being used in the 2019-2021 seasons. This defense is often plugged in when there is little challenge from the run, and the opponent’s passing offense is particularly effective under the zone and stretched vertically. Max cover defenses are also seriously challenging personnel wise. Tech has two Nose Tackles who have some decent experience nailing down this technique. Josh Fuga has the physical mass and some decent inside skills to suck up two positions worth of offensive line gaps. He’s still new to consistent starts but will undoubtedly be an anchor for the interior tackle position, regardless of the number of guys with their hands in the turf at the snap.
Norell Pollard and Mario Kendricks are also experienced at the Nose position, though unlike Fuga have been pushed out to the Defensive Tackle position often. There isn’t much of a falloff in skill level, and Pollard might actually contend with Fuga for the #1 Nose spot. The reality is, though, that none of these fine Hokies is tall enough to pull off a vertical pass defense. That doesn’t mean they can’t be effective defensive tackles. It means that the critical pressure up the “A” Gap and into the Quarterback’s face is going to be difficult with the defensive line, alone. All three can get good gap closure and LOS control at the line of scrimmage, but their ability to get inside penetration to push the Center and Guards back into the face of the QB on a 3 second pass pattern is going to be difficult.
Lack of ‘A’ Gap pass rush pressure and gate closure is a primary cause of gash QB runs, blown 3rd down stops, and 8 to 12-yard crossing pass plays under the zone. That’s because at some point, the pressure will have to be brought by blitzing a Linebacker or Safety which leaves one of a number of receivers uncovered or covered by a player without the pass coverage skills to stop the play.
The bright spot is, though that the Freshmen who will be moving into those starting positions in the future are all over 6 feet tall and looking like some time at the training table and in the weight-room might actually push them into the mass appropriate scales. I only expect Givens and Moore to have a shot at making a full season roster, but I do expect them to be suited up and ready to potentially exhaust their four-game maximum redshirt exposure. There just isn’t enough depth to avoid that choice.
In case you were wondering why there is no mention of the “other type of tackle”. It might be useful to look back at that chart and look at the height column. The potential Hokie starters are pretty much all Nose Tackles, and the ‘B’ gap tall, huge fast guy isn’t there. If Pry fields something similar to the recent past Penn State defenses, then we are likely to see two Nose Tackles on the line of scrimmage, one acting as a Nose and the other acting as the Tackle.
The 2022 Defensive Challenge
The Defensive Line is going to be the big challenge for 2022. It’s big enough to stop the run at or just behind for modest gains, but it is going to struggle with passing attacks that either move the pocket or Zone-Read/RPO packages that require height to remove the throwing and running lanes from the QB, without help from the Linebackers. That function is exceedingly difficult, and few college level programs can even get close to accomplishing it, so Tech is in good company.
This isn’t to say that the Hokies are going to fail at defense, but that there will need to be some serious technique worked. The individual players will need to be prepared and flexible. Game plans will have to be developed with serious attention paid to covering gaps and weaknesses versus the specific offense of each opponent. And I don’t mean at the average cursory level that takes advantage of physical presence and talent to make up for lack of preparation.
Many coaching staffs devote more time to offensive planning, and most defensive plans go to preparing coverages. This season J.C. Price is going to have to work the film room with his defenders and adjust the 2 and 3-deep front four to compensate. This is not 2017 and Tim Settle has been a pro for a long time, now.
Give us your thoughts.
Will the Defensive Line control the line of scrimmage, stop the run, and pressure the QB?
I see something like the old rule of projects: LOS, Run Stop, or QB Pressure - choose any two.
Not much different from last season. They’ll keep the gashes down but give yardage by being too small inside.
If they can just stop the run and contain the QBs the linebackers and safeties will fill the gaps.
Pry needs to let Marve run his Defense and go do Head Coach things. We have already seen an HC too worried about Xs and Os. No Bueno.