Remember how we had no seniors left on the Offensive Line when Jesse Hanson medically retired? Well, there is no such problem on the Defensive side of the line of scrimmage for the Hokies in 2023. And, if you haven’t noticed, quietly, and steadily the Defensive line has been stocking the cupboard with quality Freshmen. It’s actually the most complete multi-year lineup in the locker room, right now.
Before we launch into the functional unit breakdown, let us take a trip through Defensive Line theory for modern football and then look at how 2023 shapes up in fulfilling the needs for the type of line play necessary in the Read-Option Running Quarterback era.
There is a quiet confidence that the Defensive Line is responding to Coach J.C. Price, and his recruiting efforts are beginning to pay off. The interesting element, here is that Price is handling both position groups on the D-Line.
Four Man Line – Standard Front
Stud End, Nose Tackle, Tackle, Edge Rusher DE
This is a standard vanilla front and interested fans will see jockeying around shifts, twists, stunts, and other techniques to frustrate the offensive blocking schemes.
Four (Five Man Line) – Bear Front
Pass Rush LB, Stud End or Tackle, Nose Tackle, Tackle, Edge Rusher DE
If a team is one dimensional and not great at chucking the rock downfield, you will often see this run stopping formation used.
Three Man Line – Prevent or Dime
Stud End (or Tackle), Nose Tackle, Stud End (or Edge Rusher)
This is my least favorite lineup because it sacrifices pressure on the quarterback for coverage downfield. The fundamental problem with prevent defense is and always will be that coverage will always break down. A good sandlot QB will find an open man or take off for huge yardage on the ground without enough defensive hats to stop him before he gets critical yards and or stops the clock with a run or pass out of bounds.
There are variations, and those are what commonly referred to as packages. Teams have different terminology, but the composition is largely the same as what is outlined, and the offensive scheme of the opponent will dictate what package combination will be subbed in for a situation. The main trick is to have enough talent to cover the majority of the other package technique if the offense does something unexpected.
This is why a 2-deep is so important in the Defensive Line, and starting is no honorific it’s tactical. The DC is going to deploy a vanilla scheme that’s been worked out based on the scouting reports and films of the opponent’s tendencies. That’s what makes playing an unknown opponent, like in a bowl game, so tough in the first quarter. The DC inevitably has to call a very vanilla defensive front based purely on films with no real game experience.
The Roles and Goals
So, the positions are laid out. What gives with what’s going to be done? This is easy to talk about and extremely hard to do in practice. Things happen fast and collisions are pretty harsh. The Jobs, in general are:
The Tackle closes the B gap to A gap on his side of the line (usually the strong side) to keep the zone blocking scheme from screening off the defender from the runner. Ideally the Tackle should get at least 2 to 3 yards of penetration, but that might or might not happen, and depending on the blocking pattern might take him past the play.
The Nose Tackle will generally play a two-gap technique unless he faces a zone blocking scheme then his gap is the ‘A’ gap which is the area around the Center from guard to guard. You don’t see the Nose play directly over the Center very often anymore. He generally plays the opposite gap of where the Tackle is playing. If the Tackle is assigned the A/B Boundary Gap, and the Mike is filling, the Nose will do his best to push the opposite Guard into the hole/or run gap, to slow or stop the inside run. Again, Ideally getting good penetration is important, but on run plays it’s critical to close down the A-gap for minimal gains inside. If you see the tailback run into a pile of humanity for minimal yardage, the Nose Tackle has done his job.
The big change for both Tackles has come with the passing game. With the advent of the Run-Pass Option, and the Read-Option where the QB and RB are reading keys to take clues as to who runs and where, penetration into the A-gap has become critical. The R-PO depends on a throwing lane through that gap. Collapsing it into the Quarterback’s lap snuffs both the pass and the run (which is just another fancy dish off of a play action fake.) Modern offenses are pass heavy, and most defenses are going to push the envelope to get the ball in the air, down field. In pass defense the Tackle’s job is to control and collapse the A-gap to keep the QB from pulling it in and escaping through the huge hole in the middle if the rush is pushed to the edge or completing a pass on a crossing route or skinny post.
That’s where the Defensive Ends come into the equation. The old method was the Edge Rusher crashing in from far outside and beating a running back’s block to smother the QB or make him run into the Stud End… or have some other bad things happen to foil the play. The utility of the speed rush is beginning to fade with big, strong, and fast Quarterbacks playing 1 and 2 read and go offenses. If the Edge Rusher is behind the QB in this type of football, he’s taken himself out of the play. The advent of the 3-second pass play under the zone to a drag, dig, or a deeper skinny post or sluggo has made the edge rush a situational move based on the opposition QB’s skill set. It takes two players to cover the big rangy quarterback. Spies need to be well coordinated and remain in control of their field and body positions.
In the more modern scheme of things the Edge Rusher and the Stud End leverage their speed and height to contain the QB from escaping outside of the pocket to either run or pass the ball. One or the other will be the primary spy and ideally the faster surer tackler will be assigned primary contain with a linebacker who has dropped out of coverage if the QB doesn’t throw.
The fact that it’s not perfection in motion, and not everything works as planned or executed makes it real football not computer games.
Who, on the Hokies, is going to fill those roles? This season, the news is pretty good with the Tackle situation and a real challenge when it comes to the defensive end positions.
This roster is pleasantly populated with a balanced conveyor of talent with the Sophomore ranks being one player thin. We’ll talk about that later.
There is a total of four Seniors on the roster, with two of them being redshirts. Pheldarius Payne is a transfer in and currently awarded a single digit number. The three other home-grown seniors are all starters but more importantly they are respected leaders in the locker room. There is an issue, though. All four Seniors are Tackles of one type or another, with Payne being the only potential Stud End if pressed into service there.
The Junior class is populated with another four players three of whom are Tackles with either starting or regular playing chops. The “Starting” label doesn’t necessarily mean that much anymore. Much of the line play in the modern era is package dependent. Right now, Coaches Marve and Price have several Tackle combinations that are both starting quality and experienced. Again, though you will notice a distinct lack of experienced Defensive Ends of either type; Stud End or Edge Rush.
Here is where we start getting a bit light for the future. There are only three Sophomores, and of them only two who stand the chance to play on Game Day. Keyshawn Burgos seems to have earned a low single digit, and we might very well see him as a starting Edge Rusher. Jorden McDonald is making steady progress, but we’ll have to see where he fits in to the packages being traded in and out. He’s DE sized but has been spotted at Tackle often enough. It would be useful for him to develop those outside chops because the team really needs defensive ends.
There are a total of six Freshmen listed on this roster. Four of them are redshirt Freshmen so have been in a collegiate program for a year. This slightly larger group is good news for the program in the future. Given ability and attrition the reality that there are only two true Freshmen raises some eyebrows, but the Transfer Portal and some recruiting momentum will cure those ills, somewhat. Remember Freshmen are all about two years from now. Some will play, and there will be several in this group. Givens and Law might see some playing time from the Redshirt group and Findlayter could show up in his four allotted games. That all will depend on the fates of injury and opportunity.
2023 Virginia Tech Hokie Defensive Line
|Number||Name||Position||Height||Weight||Class||Anticipated Depth||Playing Potential|
|Number||Name||Position||Height||Weight||Class||Anticipated Depth||Playing Potential|
|0||Pheldarius Payne||T/DE||6' 3"||275||R-Sr.||1 and 2 (Package Dependent)||Payne is a transfer from Nebraska with starts under his belt- A 1 in this system, he will play|
|6||Josh Fuga||NT/T||6' 2"||313||R-Sr.||1 (Captain)||Fuga is going to be the defensive line captain - a solid run stuffer he needs to get deeper penetration in the A-gap|
|3||Norell Pollard||T/NT||6' 0"||285||Sr.||1 (Single Digit Number)||Pollard returns as a significant inside contributor - like Fuga he can control two gaps and stuff the run but needs to penetrate more|
|22||Mario Kendricks||T/NT||6' 0"||294||Sr.||2 and 1 (Package Dependent)||A leader and veteran Kendrick returning was a major win this season|
|56||C.J. McCray||T||6' 3"||246||R-Jr.||2 and 1 (Package Dependent)||McCray has experience inside with multiple games playe and significant stats|
|91||Wilfried Pene||T||6' 3"||285||R-Jr.||2 and 1 (Package Dependent)||A solid performer with another year of eligibility Pene is becoming a leader|
|17||Cole Nelson||DE||6' 3"||247||Jr.||1 (Edge Rusher)||Nelson is an unknown quantity at the moment - Looks like a #1 and fast enough to be an Edge|
|52||Antwaun Powell-Ryland||DL(DE)||6' 3"||242||Jr.||3/4 (2/3)||We'll see with the huge need for defensive ends and rumored impressions being made he could play higher.|
|39||Jorden McDonald||DE||6' 4"||249||R-So.||2/3 (Possible DE at times)||McDonald is still getting better and will be getting snaps. He currently grades out as a DE of either type.|
|2||Keyshawn Burgos||DE||6' 5"||240||So.||1 (Edge Rusher)||Burgos is a bit of a wildcard in this- he's going to be challenged to step up to cover the Edge|
|94||James Jennette||DE||6' 4"||205||So.||3/4 (Practice Squad)|
|32||Gunner Givens||DE||6' 5"||287||R-Fr.||3/2 (Stud End)||Givens will get solid looks at Stud End - with playing potential this season|
|54||Malachi Madison||T||6' 3"||303||R-Fr.||3/4 (Practice Squad)|
|55||Lemar Law Jr.||DE||6' 5"||329||R-Fr.||2/3 (Stud End)||Just his size and one year in a collegiate will get him some looks in the season|
|64||Elijah Klock||NT/T||6' 1"||250||R-Fr.||3/4 (Practice Squad)|
|31||Jason Abbey||DL(DE)||6' 3"||211||Fr.||3/4 (Redshirt Probable)|
|46||Ishmael Findlayter||DE||6' 4"||233||Fr.||2/3 (Redshirt Probable)||Might get some snaps as the season progresses|
This might look like a weird chart because there are “way too many ones.” This season, especially, there looks to be a good deal of swapping in and out whenever possible. The 4th quarter exhaustion factor of 2022 is going to weigh heavily on this one.
If the offense sputters and can’t score much and burn up clock, giving the Defense some rest, there is going to be more personnel swapping in heavy drain positions. That means whenever possible, especially late, fresh troops are going to be needed. Package and situation substitutions will also be more common since the team actually has the personnel depth to pull that off on a positive note.
Pheldarius Payne T/DE
Josh Fuga NT/T
Norell Pollard T/NT
Mario Kendricks T/NT
C.J. McCray T
Wilfried Pene T
Cole Nelson DE
Keyshawn Burgos DE
Twos and Threes
Jorden McDonald DE
Gunner Givens DE
Lemar Law Jr. DE
Ishmael Findlayter DE
The Grand Finish (or Start?)
Overall, the Defensive Line looks to be the best and most experienced unit on the roster. It should be able to stop the run pretty effectively, inside, and control the line of scrimmage right around the ball. As you can see from the roster, it is loaded with #1 level talent in the depth chart, and that will give Price and Marve lots of personnel flexibility to not only back up players but actively build defensive formation packages to challenge the opposing offense.
There is one glaring problem, however. There is always a challenge to solve, and those challenges are usually more numerous with transitional organizations. While the program is rich in Tackles of both types, there is precious little experience and much unknown quality at both Defensive End positions. It looks like some Redshirt Freshmen and even a true Freshman are going to be counted on and tested for this season.
The Biggest Challenge for the inside is going to be not only stopping the run (dives, draws, and slants) and closing off the Read-Option, but it must control and dominate the A-gap out to the middle of the B-gap. In addition, the line must put natural unassisted heavy pressure on the opposition quarterbacks. There are several fallacies that plague defensive minds and one of the biggest is the Edge Rush. Modern offenses are built to not only deal with the outside to inside rush, they are often specifically optimized to take advantage of the loss of outside containment.
This defensive line must start getting 2- to 3-yard controlled penetration between the Offensive Tackles. In passing situations the four-man rush needs to harass and limit the quarterback’s passing lanes, opportunities, and techniques. That means heavy pressure right in the face of the quarterback by the Tackles, and controlled containment rush from the DE’s.
Well, it’s time to offer up a grade for the pre-season practice.
Overall, the Defensive Line grades out to be a solid: B+
It could be as high as an A- the DE’s pick it up a notch but if they cannot contribute effectively then the overall grade will drop to the B/B- level very quickly.
The Tackles are pushing hard to break the A barrier, but their past lack of consistent natural pressure on the QB puts them at the B+ level but that can be bumping an A- with some work and player packaging.
The Defensive Ends range from C+ because of youth and inexperience to B/B-.
Working it to a stable reliable B would be a real win for the season. Now the reason a C+/B- doesn’t drag down the overall grade is that Marve and Price are smart enough to compensate for the “Y and I” factor there. Coaching always directly effects the grade of any unit. This one has very good coaches.
What is your feeling about the Defensive Line situation this season?
This poll is closed
It’s great if you are running a 1970’s high school five-man line, but this is going to be a real challenge for Coaches Marve and Price.
Hopefully there are enough fresh bodies to keep plugging in because my scalp itches regarding the offense and it could look like 2022.
So far things seem to be working out. No sense in harshing the mellow at this point in time. The D-Line is the least of the Hokies’ worries.
B+? How about a struggling B- at best? Freshmen at defensive end? True Freshmen, too? We are going to see four tackles lined up before the end of the first game.
Next up, Bryan is going to go over the most improved room on the team, the Wide Receivers and Tight Ends. I’ll be going back to the Offense to look at the running back room.