Bud Foster's defense held Alabama's offense, an explosive unit (38.71 PPG LY, 12th) with potential post-season award winners at tailback, left tackle, and wide receiver, to 206 total yards of offense, two touchdowns, and didn't allow a 100-yard rusher. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Hokies spent most of the game in the Alabama backfield, finishing with 12.0 tackles for a loss and 4.0 sacks. Tech's defense gave the Hokies every opportunity to win the football game. How did they completely shut down such a talented group?
Throughout the spring and summer, I highlighted the transition from Bud Foster using a base 4-2-5 concept with a Whip linebacker playing to the wide side of the field to a base 4-4 defense with the rover and whip playing on the line of scrimmage, creating an eight man front. Foster complimented the 4-4 with the use of a 46 front (an inside linebacker lined up on the outside edge to the strength of the passing formation with the rover lined up as an inside linebacker and the whip to the weak side), and a nickel concept where the rover drops as a traditional strong safety and a third corner covering the slot.
Regardless of defensive alignment or personnel, Bud Foster's attack defense requires every player to attack their assigned gap and "fit" (ie, not be driven out of their lane.) In doing so, every defender in the front eight takes an assigned gap, creating an umbrella where the running back has nowhere to go. On the interior, the defensive line stunts and slants, with the inside linebackers filling the space created by the stunt, and on the edge, each side has a player assigned with contain responsibility, forcing the play to stay to the inside where the other defenders await. Essentially, the Hokies have an eight man wall against every run, but if one player loses their gap fit, there is only one safety as the last line of defense. It is a high risk, high reward approach that is made more effective by the presence of a veteran group of experienced and talented defenders who understand the system and completely buy into its concepts.
Against Virginia Tech, the Tide utilized mostly three wide receiver sets forcing the Hokies to play long stretches in their nickel defense. The nickel transfers the edge force responsibilities from the whip and rover to the defensive ends and the nickel corner. Alabama decided to stay away from James Gayle and run left behind Cyrus Kouandjio, who draft analysts consider an elite NFL left tackle prospect. Alabama uses a zone blocking scheme similar to the scheme the Hokies installed under Jeff Grimes, and Kouandjio was tasked with reach blocking defensive end J.R. Collins. While the stat book won't tell the story, Collins had a performance for the ages, dominating Kouandjio again and again to prevent T.J. Yeldon from getting to the edge.
Let's take a look at Collins' technique.
Alabama runs a zone stretch to the wide side of the field. The Hokies are in the nickel, but the front is in a 46 alignment. Edwards is on the edge outside of Gayle, and Jarrett is up aligned as an inside linebacker. Kouandjio is supposed to attempt a reach block on Collins, but Collins beats Kouandjio to the spot and gets up field while keeping his outside shoulder free for leverage.
Derrick Hopkins splits a double team with his gap fit. Jack Tyler fills the guard-center gap, with Maddy and Gayle taking away a cutback lane.
Tariq Edwards shoots in from his 46 alignment on the edge, and when Yeldon reads that Collins isn't reached, he cuts back right into Edwards. There is nowhere to go for Yeldon, and every player is in the correct position to take away any potential cutback lanes after Collins forces the edge.
Alabama repeatedly attacked Collins, and Collins repeatedly beat Kouandjio's attempted reach blocks. Here again, Collins beats Kouandjio to the edge, forcing a cutback by the tailback. This time, Collins gets a piece, but both Hopkins and Edwards are there to finish the job.
The concept is simple. Force the edge and form a wall on the play side, and then bring pressure from the back side to make the tackle before the running back can cut back. Even if the defensive line wasn't cleanly beating their blocks, the linebackers were so quick to recognize the play, and attack their gaps, that Yeldon just could not get any downhill momentum to push the pile.
While all the veteran players were outstanding, the Hokies also got impressive contributions from their young players and backups. Both Tyrell Wilson and Dadi Nicolas made impact plays. Nigel Williams got a sack and both he and Woody Baron held their gap fits against the Alabama offensive line. And, perhaps most impressively, Kendall Fuller answered questions about his physicality and tackling.
From the slot nickel corner position, Kendall Fuller was also expected to come up and force the edge against wide running plays. On this play, the Tide run a power sweep, pulling right tackle Austin Shepherd and center Ryan Kelly. Kendall Fuller recognizes sweep, and comes up to take on the big right tackle.
Kendall Fuller uses perfect force technique, closing space with the pulling tackle and taking on the block with his inside shoulder. Even though the tackle knocks him down, he forces scatback Dee Hart back to the inside. Meanwhile, James Gayle has defeated the down block of the tight end, and has taken on the pulling center, also neutralizing him with his inside shoulder. Hart turns back inside, where big Luther Maddy is waiting on him. Maddy gets the tackle, but Fuller and Gayle give up their body to create the stop. You expect it from Gayle, but it is very exciting to see a young player like Fuller giving up his body to make the system work.
The Return of J.R. Collins
In 2011, J.R. Collins and Derrick Hopkins were the MVP's of the Hokie defense heading into the Georgia Tech game. Collins was outstanding week in and week out against the run, and was the most effective edge rusher with Gayle nursing a variety of injuries.
Against Georgia Tech, Charley Wiles made the call to move Collins inside to defensive tackle. Collins played well, but took a physical beating to his legs. He was almost completely ineffective the rest of the season, and returned for 2012 as an uninspired and overweight microcosm of what went wrong with the lost season of 2012.
All through the spring, we heard about how J.R. had turned his life around after almost being kicked off the team, and the coaches discussed how he went from someone they were not counting on to someone competing for a starting job. Still, J.R. was rather unremarkable in the spring game, and most folks thought that Dadi Nicolas would be the starter this season.
Fast forward to fall camp, and J.R. Collins is listed as a co-starter with Nicolas. All the buzz was that Nicolas was unblockable in the spring, so I was surprised. I became a believer at the August 17th scrimmage. Collins rag-dolled offensive linemen all over the field and was effective rushing the passer. He looked like an improved version of that 2011 guy who carried the team during the early part of the schedule.
Against Alabama, Collins' primary responsibility was containing the stretch play, but with James Gayle getting so much attention, the staff looked to Collins to generate some pass rush against Mel Kiper's no. 5 prospect, left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio. Above, I highlighted how Collins dominated Kouandjio in the running game. He also made plays against Kouandjio on passing downs.
Unlike Gayle, who prefers a swim technique and hand slap for rushing the passer, Collins has a very strong rip technique.
A rip technique is a hard low-to-high leverage pass rush move designed to turn the shoulders of a pass blocker and get their arms out of the way. The video above is pretty conservative. The players who are effective, rip with a violent motion, almost like throwing a hard uppercut in boxing aimed at the armpit, and then running through the gap created.
If the defender is stunting, or does not have contain responsibility, he can rip to the inside shoulder. If he has contain responsibility, he can rip to the outside shoulder and keep his outside arm free for contain leverage. The rip technique draws more holding calls than any other pass rush move because even if the tackle maintains contact, his arms will be across the defender's chest (and he can use the rip arm to hold on to him, screaming, "HOLDING, HOLDING, HOLDING," the whole time).
Collins made important plays using both techniques. On a third and long, Collins lines up outside of Kouandjio.
He doesn't have containment help, so he rips through Kounandijo's left shoulder. McCarron rushes the throw, and it's inaccurate on a deep out route.
Later, Collins creates a big play on an inside rip technique. Bud Foster calls an X-stunt, which has the two defensive ends attacking the inside shoulders of each tackle, while the defensive tackles loop around behind them to catch the quarterback if he scrambles wide.
Collins rips by Kouandjio with a hard inside rip, forcing Kouandjio to wrap his arm across Collins' chest. Collins is right in the face of McCarron, who throws a terrible ball right to Kyle Fuller for an interception. Collins pressure forces the play, and again, he is beating a legitimate NFL talent to make this play.
Even if the offense improves over last season, the road to the ACC Championship Game must be paved by Tech's defensive front. J.R. Collins gives the Hokies a smart, tough, veteran player that prevents offenses from loading up on James Gayle on the other side. It is a real treat to see that he has straightened out his life, and hopefully his performance on Saturday (as well as that of Kyle Fuller) drew the interest of some NFL scouts. Both certainly warranted the attention.