Unlike the Hokie offense, the identity of the defense is clear. Attack, control gaps, funnel the ball carrier to where you want him to go, get after the quarterback, and use that pressure and disguised robber coverage to turn the ball over. With 9 returning starters and numerous experienced backups back, Tech fans anticipate that the Virginia Tech defense in 2012 could be one of the best on record. Will the Hokies have a dominant defense? Let's examine how we can expect the Hokies to perform this season.
The strength of the Hokie defense coming into fall camp is the defensive line. The Hokies return 7 experienced players, except for Zack McCray, all have had some starting experience. James Gayle, JR Collins, Derrick and Antoine Hopkins, and Luther Maddy have all proven themselves as dependable starters. Backup Corey Marshall demonstrated explosive pass rush ability on the inside, while Tyrel Wilson and Zack McCray both stayed in regular rotation with more reps down the stretch of the regular season.
Still, the Hokie front struggled to stop the run against large offensive lines, especially those that used down blocking and misdirection. While the Miami game could be looked upon as an outlier because of injuries, the Hokies struggled against North Carolina and Clemson as the slow developing counter runs coupled with down blocking limited the Hokies ability to stunt and blitz effectively. Early in the season, it seemed as if the front seven made every tackle, yet as they got worn down, the safeties became more involved in stopping the run. In doing so, the safeties became more vulnerable in the passing game.
In the run game, Derrick Hopkins and JR Collins played outstanding football early in the season, but were not nearly as effective after the Georgia Tech game and were dominated by the Clemson front. James Gayle fought the injury bug in an erratic season where he was dominant against Marshall, UVA, and Michigan, and a non-factor against Georgia Tech, Clemson. Gayle was only in on 38 tackles in 13 starts, and he must use his athleticism to track down plays from the back side and cause turnovers. Luther Maddy was much better than expected, but tended to get out of position against misdirection. Corey Marshall still had difficulty lining up and tended to play with high pad level against the run. Tyrel Wilson is limited by his size, while Zack McCray improved as the year went on, but still isn't instinctual in Bud Foster's scheme and gets caught watching the play instead of being aggressive.
Pass rush from the front four on first and second down will be critical this season with an inexperienced secondary that lacks playmakers. If Antoine Hopkins and Luther Maddy can effectively take on double teams, it allows Gayle to play more of an edge/speed rush game. Last season, Gayle had to play with more run responsibility in order to make up for Maddy and Marshall's inexperience. The Hokies supposedly experimented in a "four defensive end" look with Marshall and McCray inside, but I would only expect to see that alignment in obvious passing situations. Marshall has a unique, Jim Davis playmaker quality from the inside, but Derrick Hopkins was an excellent pass rusher from his tackle spot and he had a unique ability to tie up blockers while linebackers blitzed through interior gaps.
Defensive Line Prognosis
I anticipate Bud Foster wants the Hokie defensive line to be better at the point of attack against the run this season, and some of the offseason moves suggest that we may see some players having more of an impact than most talking heads predict. First of all, highly touted recruit Kris Harley is listed behind Derrick Hopkins at the 3 technique tackle. Harley's frame (he looks like a mailbox with legs) and a unique ability to slant, get square, and dominate his gap, as exhibited in the spring and in his high school film, makes him a perfect fit for the gap defense. I think he plays every 3rd series, and is this year's surprise difference maker.
I expect James Gayle to have a huge season if the interior line allows him to focus on the pass rush. I think that Gayle will be on the field in all situations, but I can see JR. Collins getting significantly fewer snaps this season after Georgia Tech. Collins is a warrior, but his play early last season is as good as he will be, while Marshall and McCray both have greater upside. If the light goes on, don't be shocked if Collins becomes a platoon guy. I also really like Ken Ekanem.
Inside, I think a Derrick Hopkins-Kris Harley rotation will do wonders for Derrick Hopkins effectiveness against the meat of the ACC schedule. At the other tackle spot, does Antoine have the motor coming off injury to get his job back? Antoine Hopkins size and ability to handle double teams will be critical in beating a team like Clemson, where beating down blocking is critical.
The Hokies enter the fall a little dinged up at linebacker, but experience is not a question. Bud Foster will start the fall with Bruce Taylor moved to backer, while Jack Tyler will be the mike. Taylor is a large, lumbering linebacker who is much better going forwards than side to side, but he has excellent instincts in the passing game. Also, while he is not as fast as Tariq Edwards, he is much stronger taking on blocks. Tyler is a perfect fit in attacker his gap assignment and making sure tackles, but he struggled when he became passive against Clemson. Both Taylor and Tyler are outstanding blitzers on passing downs. Taylor is so big that he forces quarterbacks to hesitate, allowing him to make the play. Tyler has an innate ability to time the snap count, and adjust his blitz to how the offensive line reacts to the defensive line stunts. Tyler is a major liability in coverage, but for the most part, the mike and the backer had very little pass coverage responsibility besides short flats and defenses were not successful in attacking those areas.
Tariq Edwards was a huge upgrade over Jake Johnson and Lydell Gibson last year, using his speed and pursuit to make plays in both the passing and running game. He is a great tackler who wraps his arms and explodes into the ball carrier. However, he is not strong at the point of attack (which was exposed repeatedly as Miami blockers put him on roller skates most of the second half) and must do a better job when he returns filling interior gaps. Also, while he is much faster than Taylor, he is not as sharp blitzing, often getting a poor jump on the snap count. Edwards would be an absolute stud as a true 4-3 outside linebacker, but he is a bit miscast at backer and I think he would almost fit better at whip if the Hokies didn't return so much whip depth. Chase Williams returns after an excellent spring, and it sounds like the coaches are confident that he is a starter caliber player right now. If not needed at tailback, Trey Edmunds could be a difference maker right away if injuries creep up, and Deon Clarke is a dynamic blitzing playmaker who will add a new wrinkle to the backer position in the future.
Whip has been perhaps the most talked about position on the defense since James Anderson's ascension to the NFL. Cody Grimm had a terrific senior season, but with that notable exception, the position has been filled by players with limited ability to impact the game. This season, the whip position becomes critical; as whips will be counted on to play more passing down snaps as the young secondary develops.
Jeron Gouveia Winslow fits the mold of the smart tweener that just doesn't make plays. He has not taken on blocks well and has a bad habit of turning his shoulders and losing his feet to absorb a block instead of engaging and then shedding. He also doesn't have the pursuit speed you'd like and isn't athletic enough to be dynamic in space. His track record of making poor reads, which is not what you want from the only position in Bud Foster's defense that really plays a pursuit and fill role, probably doesn't help his cause. JGW was responsible for the only Arkansas State touchdown and numerous other QB runs when he failed to fill on the quarterback read play, which was essentially his assignment the entire game. In a league where the spread/read game is becoming more prevalent, you need smarts and athleticism in space.
Alonzo Tweedy can run and run, but the coaching staff didn't trust him to play significant snaps against the meat of the ACC schedule. He is also a liability in pass coverage, and I think the whip will be leaned on in coverage more than any season since Cody Grimm. He is also the smallest Hokie at the position, and is almost 20 pounds lighter than Antone Exum. Tweedy is quick, but physics takes over when you are on the tracks and a 6'6 330 train comes through. Good teams find ways to attack the whip in the running game, and the Hokies need an all-around player in the position.
I wish I could tell you that Ronnie Vandyke will get a serious chance to, "Brandon Manning," JGW and Tweedy. I didn't get a chance to see him in the spring, or review film, but it is very rare that you hear Bud Foster laud an underclassman in the same breath as calling upperclassmen "limited." At 6'3, 215, Vandyke is a premier athlete at a position where the Hokies have not used many premier athletes. And, the talking heads have neglected to mention that he is much bigger than Tweedy and JGW, so perhaps he would be more of a threat in backside pursuit. I also still think that the Hokies should explore using Edwards as the whip against power running teams. His speed, pursuit, and instincts would make him a great fit.
If the first four games of last year, coupled with the upheaval in the secondary are any indication, Bud Foster wants his backer and mike, along with the line, to dominate in the running game and be responsible for pass rush. Foster will mix up his blitzes, but I think most will come from Taylor and Tyler on the inside, while the whip will receive more snaps covering slot receivers. Foster's comments about the whip position were pointed, and I think that the Hokies staff wants Ronnie Vandyke to cleanly beat JGW and Tweedy for the job. I also expect to see Chase Williams in a rotation at both the mike and the backer position for the Bowling Green and Austin Peay games to get him ready for a leadership role next year. Don't be surprised if you see Williams getting in every 3-4 series, especially if the Hokies get a quick lead.
The focus of the summer has been second guessing the radical move of Antone Exum to corner, while former corners Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett move to safety. Instead of dealing with unknowns (Jarrett and Bonner's ability to set the coverage and support the run game, depth), let's look at the secondary based on what we do know.
First, since 2010, Hokie opponents have had one rule in the passing game. Attack the Hokie safeties in coverage. With Duke and Clemson being the only exceptions, opposition coaching staffs game plan to get their top receivers deep against the Hokie 4-4 G coverage, while curling their secondary receivers into the vacated zones and away from the elite Hokie corners. I think the move of Bonner and Jarrett suggests that Foster feels confident that his front seven can handle the run, and such a lineup gives Foster four good cover guys on every down. Bonner has handled the communication well, and based on his special teams play, Jarrett could really be a highlight reel player if he gets comfortable playing deep.
The Hokies also have two outstanding run support corners in Exum and Fuller. Neither are dynamic interception guys (they have combined for 3 interceptions between them over two seasons of action). Fuller is active in zone defenses, while Exum has outstanding range, but often has trouble finding the ball even when he is in a defenders hip pocket. Over the last couple of seasons, the Hokie corners have played off, relying on scheme and reaction speed to make plays in the passing game, and protecting against the big play. However, when Foster has started a big, strong, player at the boundary corner, the Hokies have played a radically different style. I expect the Hokies to roll their coverage away from the boundary, and have Exum play press bump and run man coverage with the rest of the secondary in a zone in the middle and field thirds. Jimmy Williams and Brandon Flowers excelled in this defense, which allowed the Hokies to essentially take away a quarter of the field with one player. Also, much like Foster used Flowers and Williams, I expect Exum to blitz from his boundary corner position, with Bonner taking the deep third to his side. It should be an easy transition for Bonner, who played as the boundary corner during parts of last season.
As much as Tech's defensive success has been fostered by their ability to get interceptions, over the past several years, big numbers aren't always the story. The 1999 team only forced 10 interceptions all season, with Anthony Midget leading the team with 4. Yet, they lead the nation in defense. If the Hokies don’t have natural ballhawks, then they get turnovers through the front four forcing the QB into bad plays. Again, the system only works when all three levels click.
The players behind the starters remain a mystery. Boye Aromire did not impress in limited action last season, and Michael Cole was brutal during spring practice. The coaching staff really likes Donaldven Manning, but without other options, would they say anything critical about him at this point? Freshmen are expected to letter at this position. That is never a good thing when none are highly recruited guys. I'd love to see the staff consider getting Vandyke on the field at rover if he isn't going to be given a chance to compete at whip. I will keep my fingers crossed on that one.
Next week we will look at the evolution of the Hokie running game since 1993, followed up by close analysis of the August 18th public scrimmage. Will the Hokies finally develop an offensive identity after years of being, "great athletes making chicken salad out of trash," or will the Hokie running game continue to be a hodgepodge of multiple offensive concepts? We will look at the "I", the speed option, and the ace formation zone play, with eyes towards the spread, single wing spread, and the pistol as fall camp continues to build to the showdown with Georgia Tech.