Last summer, I devoted three French on the Bench columns to the design of Bud Foster's 4-2-5 gap defense. Foster developed the 4-2-5 scheme from 4-4 attack principles (that root back to Phil Elmassian's time at Tech in the mid 90s). The 4-2-5 scheme moved the rover back into more of a traditional strong safety role, while the whip transitioned into a hybrid outside linebacker that was part nickel corner, and part free ranging outside linebacker. As the rovers and whips became smaller and more coverage oriented, Virginia Tech made fewer impact plays (sacks, tackles for a loss, forced fumbles) with the front seven, and instead focused on forcing turnovers with innovative coverage strategies. Eight- and nine-man run support was facilitated through the use of inverted cover 2 zone coverage. In the inverted cover 2 zone, the safeties moved forward to support the run while converging on their underneath zone responsibilities. That left special talents like Jimmy Williams and Jayron Hosley free to sit back in robber coverage and rack up interceptions. Foster even went so far to essentially play nickel corner in place of a whip on a majority of snaps over the course of two seasons.
In 2012, that plan just did not work. With an inexperienced secondary, the Hokies safeties and whip linebackers were consistently taken advantage of by opposing defenses. Foster slowly adjusted his scheme by trying to utilize Michael Cole and Detrick Bonner in roles that made them more comfortable. There were some positive results, but the defense failed to make the big play to win games while the offense struggled. On the eve of the Florida State game, and with expectations at their lowest in recent memory, Foster kicked the can and returned to the attacking 4-4 defensive scheme that brought Virginia Tech to prominence. With it, the roles of the rover and whip changed drastically. Despite the graduation of Bruce Taylor and Alonzo Tweedy, who flourished in the reborn system, Foster utilized the same fronts consistently in spring practice, and I fully expect that the Hokies will use the 4-4 as a base defense this season.
From all the film I've watched, regardless of defensive formation, there's one truth that always holds true for the whip and rover at Virginia Tech. Regardless of formation, the Rover ALWAYS goes to the PASSING STRENGTH of the formation, meaning the side of the football with the largest number of eligible receivers. That does not mean that the rover will always line up to the tight end side; for example if the tight end lines up to the left, and the offense has a split end and a slot receiver (twins) to the right, the rover will align to twins side. The whip ALWAYS lines up away from the passing strength of the formation. Given how offenses use formations based on field position, most often the Whip will also be on the same side as the boundary corner, while the rover will be on the same side as the field corner. In these alignments, the rover has more coverage responsibility and is comparable to a second field corner, while the whip free flows to the football in a similar fashion to the free safety. Both can be utilized as blitzing defenders from positions where an offense is unaccustomed to seeing a blitz.
Defensive Alignment in the Four-Four
In the 90's, Bud Foster used two alignments with the 4-4 defense. Following Michael Cole's injury, Foster mostly used the old "46" alignment made famous by Buddy Ryan and the Chicago Bears.
It was Foster's secondary alignment in the 90's, but Bruce Taylor's diverse skillset (remember his stint at defensive end) made him uniquely situated to act as an edge rusher and play as containment. By formation it brought Taylor closer to the strong side flat in zone coverage. As the rover, Kyshoen Jarrett aligned in an inside linebacker alignment. From this position, he would cover the inside receiver to the strength of the passing formation or he had free reign to find the football in run support. Because the three-technique tackle, stud end, and backer are all aligned to occupy gaps, the rover does not have a gap fill assignment in this alignment. Instead, if he identifies run, he is free to attack the football. Jarrett's experience as a cover corner coupled with his unique ability as a tackler in tight space made him ideal for this front.
If teams overload to the strong side, like Rutgers does with this two-tight end strong set below, the middle linebacker and the rover adjust over.
The defensive alignment is shifted over to the strength of the formation, but on the weak side, there are only three blockers to account for four defenders. The whip is unblocked. In this spot, the defensive end can stunt across the face of the tackle and track down the play from the inside, with the whip staying outside to take screen, throwback, bootleg, and reverse responsibility. Or, the defensive end can play contain and the whip can pursue flat down the line.
Both tackles and J.R. Collins stunt to the left and make the play, with Tweedy free and unblocked to take a cutback or a bootleg. The scheme overwhelms the offense with the slant to deliver defenders to the point of attack, and the whip is free to clean up from the backside.
This season the Hokies are without the services of Bruce Taylor and Alonzo Tweedy. Those two were unique talents that allowed them to have success within the 46 front. In their place, Tariq Edwards will play backer and Ronny Vandyke will play the whip. Edwards has better mobility than Taylor, but isn't as comfortable taking on blockers on the outside. Vandyke is not as effective free-ranging in pursuit, but is far superior in man to man coverage.
Accordingly, Foster has adjusted his base front again. Foster will continue to use the 46 front, but as an alternative blitzing front. Based on spring practice, the Hokies will use their old "G" front, which was their primary base front against pro-sets in the 1990's. The "G" front uses the same personnel as the 46 front, with two primary adjustments in the alignment.
Against the G front, the whip and the rover both play on the edge of a six man front, with the rover again going to the strength of the passing formation, with the whip going to the weak side. This gives the Hokies eight men in the box, and because they play so much inverted cover 2 (with corners dropping deep and the free safety coming forward to play zone short and to the strength of the formation) that the free safety becomes a de facto ninth man in the box.
As discussed above, the rover and whip continue to be hybrid positions in this defense. They must be athletic and quick enough to cover secondary receivers in man and zone coverage, but force the run in a similar fashion to a 3-4 outside linebacker. "Force the run" means if a running play comes to your side as a whip or a rover, your assignment is to get up the field with an aiming point at the inside leg of the running back and take on the lead blocker with your inside shoulder. This should force the running back to cut back inside, where the defenders outnumber the blockers.
On the first play of the spring game, we see not only the G alignment, but we also see Kyshoen Jarrett demonstrate that he can be effective on the edge while executing his force assignment.
On this play, the Hokies run a lead-stretch play to the strength of the passing formation. Kyshoen Jarrett is lined up outside the tight end to the strong side. At the snap, he takes an aiming point at the inside leg of the tailback. When he identifies the play as a run at him, he challenges the fullback with his inside leg forward and his inside shoulder.
If the tailback tries to bounce it outside, Jarrett is deep enough into the backfield that the back would have to stop his forward momentum. Jarrett also has his outside shoulder free, so the fullback would lose leverage, and Jarrett should be able to pursue the tailback (with help from the free ranging field corner). Instead, the back cuts it inside the fullback's block, right into the teeth of Kyle Fuller, who fills a decent hole (because of an excellent block on James Gayle), and turns it into a 1 yard gain.
At the whip position on the other side, Ronny Vandyke identifies run away. He delays his pursuit until he confirms that the quarterback did not keep the ball on a bootleg, and then he pursues flat down the line in a support position.
On the next play, the Hokies run the stretch play from a two tight end set back at Vandyke at whip, this time without a fullback.
The tight end looks to reach Vandyke, sealing him inside to allow the tailback a clear lane on the outside. However, Vandyke immediately recognizes this and attacks the outside shoulder of the tight end, again with his INSIDE shoulder. He gets up the field and forces the tailback to again cut back inside into the teeth of the pursuit. This is an outstanding example of quality assignment football. Vandyke does not make the tackle, but he was in a very vulnerable position against a good blocker. He leveraged himself to cut off the seal block, and prevented a big play on the outside. Alonzo Tweedy and G-W struggled repeatedly to do so in similar situations over the last three seasons.
From the other side, Jarrett has the backside pursuit assignment. He is a little quicker in identifying that the quarterback has handed the ball off (come on Coach Loeffler, makes those play fakes sharper!) and pursues almost directly flat down the line of scrimmage. He is in position to make the tackle if the back eludes the initial pursuit.
Coverage responsibilities vary for the rover and the whip, most of which were highlighted last summer. When the Hokies run their base inverted cover two, the whip will have the flat to the weak side, while the rover will have the flat to the strong side. In the Four-Four G coverage that was diagrammed following it's devastating effect in the Rutgers game, the whip and rover drop into a four deep look. To a QB, it appears to be man, but if a receiver leaves their quarter, they do not follow unless the throw is made.
In straight man to man coverage, the rover and whip will align over slot receivers (although last season Foster went against his normal tactic and moved Bonner over the slot, with Jarrett dropping back to play a de facto free safety). In the nickel package, the whip leaves the field and the nickel moves to cover the slot receiver, regardless of which side they align, and the rover plays a traditional two-deep safety to the strength of the passing formation.
In passing situations, whip and rover's new role means one thing, pressure on the offensive line and quarterback to account for 8 potential pass rushers with 5-6 blockers on every play. It forces the offense to play defense, and limits the amount of receivers that can go out in the pattern as well as the routes they can run. Based on the film that I have watched, Vandyke and Jarrett are both much more adept at man coverage than blitzing, but the threat of their blitzing creates opportunities for pressure on the inside. I would anticipate that early in the Alabama game we see blitzes from both the whip and the rover to establish them as threats, and then as the game moves forward they will feign blitzing and drop into coverage to force turnovers.
Over the years, Bud Foster has been able to tailor his system to the strengths of his players while mitigating their weaknesses. His defenses have competed with more talented teams through the use of an attack mentality, one gap responsibility, and creating abnormal situations that force the offense to defend itself. The whip and rover positions demonstrate the premium that Foster places on flexibility, deception, and forcing the defense to account for players that can cover the pass, defend the run, and blitz.