I listened to and read quotes from all of Tech's media sessions this week. As someone on the outside of the program looking in, it's really the only way to take the pulse of the team. In my mind, the game against Duke will ultimately make or break the season, and it may say something about program's future. Our backs are firmly against the wall Saturday, and however unlikely, an ACC Championship is still within reach. It won't be, and bowl bid won't look promising, if we lose to Duke.
These are some quotes I found interesting and telling along with my thoughts.
The early part of Virginia Tech's practice Tuesday focused all on tackling. Defenders rotated through three stations, one manned by defensive coordinator Bud Foster, one by defensive line coach Charley Wiles, one by defensive backs coach Torrian Gray.
Each had a different tackling drill -- wrapping up (Foster), shedding blocks (Wiles) and open field (Gray) -- all in an effort to correct the missed tackles and blown leverages against North Carolina last weekend.
"Normally when we do, that next game our execution and fundamentals are a lot better," Gray said.
It was a change of pace from the media's regular viewing session, which usually involves just position drills. After rotating the groups through the tackling drills for a period Tuesday, Foster called the defense together for a punishment drill. One by one he called players out for "loafs," having the entire defense do up-downs before sprinting off the snap 10 yards.
"We need the intensity level to be ratcheted up, obviously," Gray said. "We wouldn't be putting the emphasis on the start of practice like we're doing if we were satisfied with the way we're playing overall right now."
Missed tackles in the open field, unsecured gaps, blown coverages, basically a lack of defensive fundamentals have accounted for a slew of big plays conceded by the defense. As Antone Exum put it during the team's weekly presser, defenders need to stop playing "Hero Ball" and just do their job.
Shane got after the running backs too.
The defense wasn't the only group that ratcheted things up a little. The running backs were doing a modified bull-in-the-ring exercise, working on low pad level, with Shane Beamer commenting from the outside of the hula-hoop-like ring (he kept referring to players by their high schools). After Martin Scales and Joey Phillips had a punchless matchup, Shane remarked, "Y'all look like to old women."
The coaches calling guys out during practice, making them do up-downs before their seventh game of the season, not referring to them by name, emphasizing hitting, and letting the media see it all seems like an attempt to curb any egos into a team focus that's tougher and more sound.
Although, it's disappointing as hell to read the following.
Trey Edmunds stood up Scales on two occasions, drawing a, 'That's how they do it at Dan River" comment from Shane. He's definitely got some power.
There's no doubt in my mind Trey Edmunds could have helped this football team.
When asked if the strategy at beginning of the season was to run Logan less to save him some hits, Bryan Stinespring replied, "Early in the year we were running a little bit more option, and the ball was being dealt a little bit more." French harped on Logan missing the read on the zone option to start the season. He has gotten better at it, and Stinespring said they called more runs for Logan.
Going into the season the defensive line was a perceived strength. Rolling two-deep at every position, I expected them to set the tone upfront and provide a pass rush that would force quicker throws, which would make the job of the piecemeal secondary a bit easier. They haven't done that. Tech is T-96th in nationally with 8 sacks, and the defensive line has accounted for 6.5 of them (Wilson 2, Gayle 2, D. Hopkins 1.5, Roth 1). Wiles admitted the d-line is being content and not making enough plays.
But Wiles also expects more from a defensive line that was billed as the strength of this defense in the preseason. The only player he singled out for praise Tuesday was Gayle.
"I thought inside we've just got to get off more blocks. We've got to pitch more of a fit," Wiles said. "I don't think there was a bunch of loafs necessarily, but just don't be content with just winning your gap. We've got to chase it and fight. We're fighting for our lives, man, and you've got to play like that every play.
At defensive tackle, Wiles conceded sophomore Luther Maddy's play been hampered by an ankle injury and senior Antoine Hopkins was taking first-team snaps during Tuesday's practice. "Since Georgia Tech, I haven't seen the same guy," Wiles said of Maddy.
To help address the issues inside, the Hokies used four defensive ends at times in Saturday's game, with redshirt junior J.R. Collins and sophomore Corey Marshall at defensive tackle and redshirt freshman Dadi Nicolas and Gayle on the edge. Wiles said the team plans on utilizing that lineup more in the future because of their ability to make plays on the perimeter.
And Wiles was as frank as ever.
Asked if he was shocked by the team's struggles, he said: "I never go into a game or into a year thinking I'm getting ready to get my ass beat. I don't take that approach. But I mean, I'm not saying I'm surprised. I'm disappointed. But the only way we can get it solved is this Saturday. We need to win the game this Saturday and we'll move on from there and get ready for another big game. I mean, every game down the stretch is a big game."
And everyone agrees.
Throughout the week the coaches were asked about the nickel package, and it sounds like we will see less of it. They essentially admitted it might have been too much for the defensive backs, three of which are playing new positions this season, to learn. In theory it's a great scheme, but we don't have the personnel to run it. There's no third corner coming off the bench, and Bonner isn't the same player in the roaming around the field as Kyle Fuller. The overuse of the nickel really baffles me because it takes Ronny Vandyke, one of the better playmakers and athletes, off the field, and puts Michael Cole, who plays hard, but has struggled, on it. Vandyke showed in August he could cover in man, and I'm happy we'll see more of a base look.
A lot of the problems this team has can't be solved in a week of practice. I don't expect the secondary to get better over night, and there's no switch to flip to make the guys on the interior of the o-line more fundamentally sound and cohesive. In my playing experience, from Pop Warner to high school, the coaches dogged us at practice when they felt like we weren't giving a maximum effort. I think that's the case here, a last-ditch attempt to turn it around before the season really spirals out of control. There is upside to the defensive line, the talent is there. Logan Thomas showed last season, and really the last six quarters this year that he can sling the ball around and stretch defenses. Knowles and Corey Fuller have stepped up and proved they are viable targets. All we can hope for is the players respond to the coaches' challenge, and the guys we know can make plays, make plays.