A significant amount of my columns have been devoted to explaining Bud Foster's defensive scheme. I've discussed the basics of the base 4-2-5, detailed the 46 front that was so prevalent at the end of 2012, and highlighted the unique ways that the Hokie secondary defends the pass without dropping 7 defenders into coverage. There is a single constant across each piece I write; Coach Foster keeps me on my toes. During Saturday's scrimmage, Foster rolled out a rarely seen defensive set, a nickel package that featured a three-man defensive front and keeps the Whip on the field.
French on the Bench
Not having the opportunity to watch either of the first two spring scrimmages, my biggest focus watching Saturday's scrimmage was how the offensive blocking scheme had changed under Coach Searels. Saturday presented two radically different answers to this question. Before the defense came out of the locker room for warmups, Coach Loeffler ran a 3/4 speed walk-through reviewing the offensive playbook with the scout team O serving as defenders. Gates opened at 10:30 AM, and the offense appeared to already have run through a significant amount of playbook. Once I was settled I saw the first team offense use the pistol formation to execute a power series, a counter series off power action, and a play-action series off power action. One principle thing stood out, every play featured at least one offensive lineman pulling and man blocking at the point of attack. This is a radical departure from the zone blocking scheme used last season by Coach Grimes, who only pulled a guard on inverted veer and quarterback counters.
Today, I'm going to break down two basic principles of the Virginia Tech offense and defense matched against each other—the zone stretch versus the gap fit.
In Bud Foster's gap defense, each of the front-six defenders (all four down linemen and the two inside linebackers) have responsibility to attack a gap and either make a play in the gap or occupy it without being driven out. The outside "linebacker-safeties" (Whip and Rover) are edge players. Based on a defensive call they either "force" the play, playing outside contain to force the running back to the inside, or "spill" the play, attacking the inside shoulder of the running back, forcing him to bounce outside to an unblocked alley player which is often the free safety. Against teams that zone block running plays, the normal "key" for an interior player is go where the offensive lineman goes, cross his face, and fit the gap to his outside.
Spring football, much like the season itself, is a time of renewal. We're eager to learn more about the new group of Hokies and how they can contribute and star in the program moving forward. At the same time, perhaps we overlook players who have been in the program for an extended period of time. Case in point is the Whip position. The Whip has been utilized so little since the Boise State game that many consider the nickel defense the "base" set for Virginia Tech.
In a recent post, VTGuitarMan asked "What defines a nose tackle? In my naive view, I always equated NT with the middle guy in a 3-man front, lined up over center. I'm guessing that's not true, or otherwise Foster's scheme modifies that terminology." As always, I am more than happy to oblige with an answer.
First, it is important to understand the difference between the name of the position and technique. The Hokies have four defensive line positions in their system.
No member of Virginia Tech's incoming class is perhaps as highly anticipated and shrouded in mystery as Holland Fisher. Fisher, an Under Armour All-American safety from Manchester High School in Midlothian, Virginia, was one of the highest ranked players in the Hokies' 2013 signing class. Tech had to fend off a late push for Fisher by Alabama that included breakfast at Nick Saban's house. In the end, Fisher remained committed to Virginia Tech, but had to prep at Fork Union. Fisher signed with Tech again last February, and now that he's qualified will enroll in Tech's first summer school session on May 27.
For me, that is where the mystery begins. Fisher was regarded as a preeminent safety prospect. At 6-2, 210 pounds, Fisher harkens back to the days of the big, intimidating Hokie safety ala Kam Chancellor or Aaron Rouse. However, when I watched high school film of Fisher, he was used almost exclusively at the inside linebacker spot. Fork Union used Fisher as a free safety, but FUMA head coach Mark Shuman told the Roanoke Times Doug Doughty, "Holland Fisher played free safety, had one interception, had a couple sacks. He's a pretty good player. I think Fisher will be more of an outside linebacker. He's got good speed, good range. With what they like to do, I think he'll that rover-whip type guy."
As I discussed in my film review of Cam Phillips, a pressing need for the Virginia Tech offense was developing a true split end that can beat man coverage and stretch the field vertically. The Hokies passing game was better than expected last season, but the lack of a deep threat allowed opposing defenses to play their safeties in inverted coverage, often coming forward immediately at the snap without needing to worry about providing deep help to corners in man coverage. This had two effects. First, defenses had safeties flying into the box to stop the run just after the snap. This allowed defenses to play seven men in the box, and bring a safety late from angles that the offensive line and tight ends could not identify prior to the snap. Second, it meant that the safeties could help the linebackers and nickel corners on the crossing routes and misdirection routes that Coach Loeffler had the most success with throughout the year.
The transition from the Logan Thomas era has been a roller coaster ride, with many twists and turns, and those aboard don't know how it'll end. Tech's quarterback derby, already consisting of redshirt senior Mark Leal, redshirt sophomore Brenden Motley, three 2014 signees, Andrew Ford, Chris Durkin, and Travon McMillian, will feature another new face.
Where does Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer fit into Virginia Tech's quarterback competition? Even though he's transferring, Brewer will graduate in May, making him immediately eligible to play in the fall with two years of eligibility remaining. Loeffler's comments regarding Leal's preparation and performance in the Sun Bowl did not leave me feeling warm and fuzzy. Each of the three freshmen challengers have terrific upside, but it is rare that a true freshman can step in and effectively lead an offense against BCS competition.
Virginia Tech will open 2014 spring practice with only three scholarship defensive tackles on the roster (Luther Maddy, Nigel Williams, and Woody Baron). Former Division 3 transfer Wade Hansen will be eligible and get some second team repetitions, and perhaps a defensive end will move inside. Either way, it is not a deep group, and Maddy is by far the biggest guy. I am sure that Maddy and Williams will be an excellent starting pair, and despite his small size, Baron did an excellent job of holding up against much bigger blockers in a limited role, but the lack of size and depth is deeply worrisome. For the 2014 Hokies to be successful, they will need immediate contributions from one or both of their freshman defensive tackles, Ricky Walker and Steve Sobczak.
While most of HokieNation's attention to replace Logan Thomas has been focused on Andrew Ford and Chris Durkin, Scot Loeffler's first quarterback commitment of the 2014 cycle was Travon McMillian (6-0, 200, C.D. Hylton Woodbridge, Virginia).
McMillian is a prospective engineering student who had offers from several ACC schools along withTennessee and Auburn. In 2013 he completed 97 of 169 passes for 1,472 yards and 17 scores, and also rushed for 1,537 yards on 166 attempts and 20 scores. In 2012 he racked up 1,326 yards and 12 touchdowns, and ran for 1,242 yards and 16 scores.