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.
The Whip linebacker is sometimes difficult to explain. It originated in Tech's eight-man front defense, where the Rover and Whip were hybrid outside linebackers. The Rover generally aligned to the passing strength while the Whip went away. The Whip aligned to the boundary, Rover to the field, with the ball on the hash. The terminology has changed, as the Rover has evolved into more of a traditional strong safety, while the Whip has become a player that is moved around in order to be a free-hitter in space. I have discussed the Whip position in detail over the years, but as soon as I wrap my head around the position, Bud Foster adds a new twist (for example, the Dadi Nicolas set against Pitt, and playing Josh Trimble to the strong side on the edge even when the strong side was on the boundary like against Miami). But, there are several core traits that every good Whip linebacker must have.
- The Whip must be a terrific pursuit player who can tackle in space, just like a free safety.
- The Whip must occasionally force the edge just like a 3-4 outside linebacker. That means they must be strong enough to take on blocks.
- The Whip must be able to adequately cover lesser receivers and running backs.
Cam Martin really was the last archetype Whip standout at Virginia Tech. Even Cody Grimm, whose senior season will stand out as one for the ages, struggled with the coverage role required for the position. Since Grimm graduated, his replacements have been limited players. Jeron Gouveia-Winslow had the size to force the edge, but struggled in coverage and tackling in space. Alonzo Tweedy was electric with his speed in space, but he could not cover slot receivers and struggled when asked to take on blocks.
In 2012, nobody was more negative about the future of the Whip position than me. It had become the island of misfit toys for defensive recruits. Then I had an opportunity to watch Ronny Vandyke in the final scrimmage of fall camp. Vandyke had won best defensive newcomer during spring practice, and I was eager to see if Vandyke was the total package at Whip. I wasn't disappointed. In that scrimmage, Bud Foster started Jeron Gouveia-Winslow exclusively as a blitzer/force player off the edge. When a slot receiver flexed out, JGW stayed inside, and a safety was forced to cover the slot in man. But, when Vandyke came in to the scrimmage, Foster moved him all around. He jolted fullbacks trying to kick him out. He pressured Logan Thomas. And most impressively, he flexed out to cover Corey Fuller in man coverage when the offense trotted out three receiver sets. By my count, Fuller (who went on to have a great senior season) only beat Vandyke once head-to-head; a corner route to the left side in the south endzone. Thomas didn't see him and threw an incompletion.
Vandyke is the complete package. At 6-3, 204 pounds, he has the size to take on blockers and win. He has the speed to make plays in space and run plays down from behind. And, unlike the recent Whips, he has the ability to cover receivers from the slot, which allows the Hokies to play an extra run defender against spread teams. I couldn't fathom how he wasn't a lock to win the starting job even with seniors Gouveia-Winslow and Tweedy on the roster. But, Vandyke was a freshman and was in his first season at a new position. According to Foster, he was thinking too much and not playing instinctively.
"Ronny was a freshman. And he kind of played like a freshman at times," Foster said. "He was so robotic. He didnt want to make a mistake. It was more like he was playing to do the right thing rather than: lets do the right thing, but lets go out and be a football player. Know what I mean?
"And I think he did that later on in the season. Not so robotic, so to speak. Some guys can be that way when theyre young. And that goes back to, more than anything, experience. Guys that have seen it and seen it and seen it and know when to bend or redirect. Ronny was kind of very segmented, robotic compared to what I know he can do. And Im expecting big things from him this spring."
As a result, he lost his spot to Tweedy against Florida State (2012). However, Vandyke practiced terrifically leading up to the Russell Athletic Bowl. Against Rutgers, Ronny split reps with Tweedy, played a tremendous game, notched 5 tackles, displayed great coverage, and pressured the quarterback. It's worth noting that with the game on the line down the stretch in the 4th quarter and overtime, Foster went with Vandyke instead of Tweedy. That decision paid off on the last drive when Vandyke made a physical tackle on second-and-long to prevent yards after a catch on a quick tight end curl route. Rutgers missed the field goal and the Hokies won the ugly affair.
I watched the game film of the Russell Athletic Bowl to get a feel for what Vandyke, as the only returning player with experience in the linebacker group, would bring to the table in 2014. He had some tentative moments as Foster noted, but I saw a physically gifted player who used great speed to run plays down from behind, rushed the passer, covered beautifully, and played with a physical edge that has been lacking at the position since Cody Grimm's graduation. Here is a quick sample of how Vandyke can be a playmaker for the 2014 defense.
First and foremost, the Whip is the free hitter coming in to cut off cut back lanes on the zone stretch play. There are two techniques that depend on the original alignment. If the Whip is playing off the line of scrimmage wide like a true 4-3 outside linebacker, the Whip trails the play (confirming there is not a bootleg or reverse before scraping), then he comes across and fills the first cut back lane that shows. The second technique is much more friendly to fast Whip linebackers. With this technique, the Whip must be aligned on the line of scrimmage outside. Let's take a look.
This approach is high risk. Each defensive lineman slants hard to the gap to their play side. Their goal is to cross the face of the blocker and force the running back to cut back to the inside. The Whip, this time Vandyke, pursues at a flat angle straight down the line of scrimmage. He grabs the running back and drags him down from the blind side. If Vandyke isn't there, that play goes for a big gain. Here is a similar play, and this time Vandyke "brings the wood" with him.
Foster loves to send the Whip on blitzes off the edge. Vandyke isn't as quick as Tweedy was, but he is much more physical and has the strength to shed a block if the blitz is picked up. Here, Vandyke stunts through the inside shoulder of the left tackle.
The tackle gets his hands on Vandyke and picks up the stunt, but Vandyke runs right through the contact and pressures the quarterback. Although, his inexperience showed here a bit too. The Rutgers quarterback freezes Vandyke with a pump fake and then completes the pass. If Vandyke ignores the fake, he would've had the sack.
Most impressively, Vandyke was outstanding in coverage the entire game. He can cover as a traditional linebacker, a Whip/nickel, and a corner. Here Vandyke is on the edge as a Whip (closest to the bottom of the screen.) When the running back flexes out with the running back in motion, and tracks him perfectly in the flat.
Next, Vandyke is lined up as a traditional linebacker (in the middle linebacker position with Tyler lined up on the line of scrimmage on the edge). He turns and runs with the tight end to the top of the screen on a go route right up the seam.
For those of you clamoring for Vandyke to move to the backer spot, I doubt it happens, but this demonstrates that Vandyke could move inside and play mike or backer in the nickel set if one of the starters struggle in coverage.
Next, Vandyke is playing as a nickel on the boundary slot against Rutgers' two minute offense.
Vandyke drops into a soft umbrella zone and drops deep as the slot receiver threatens his cushion. Rutgers then floods the running back out into the vacated space. Vandyke isn't even in the screen when the quarterback throws, but he closes the space and makes a sure tackle for a short gain.
Finally, his coverage ability gives Foster the ability to mix and match his scheme to confuse the quarterback.
Here he has Vandyke aligned out wide like a cornerback. Note that Exum is playing a deep third behind him. Vandyke shows that he is playing a short zone, and then when the outside receiver curls, Vandyke jumps him with a man technique. Nova looks to the opposite side and throws an incompletion. But, if he looked back to the right flat, Vandyke at the curl route up.
I think Foster has huge plans for Ronny. A healthy Vandyke playing at the level shown above gives Foster tremendous flexibility on defense. He doesn't have to run as much nickel against spread teams. He can utilize his full complement of pressures with the front seven, and his defense is much better at stopping the run with a good Whip linebacker. Vandyke gives that added element of being an outstanding coverage man. Based on the film that I have seen, as much as I like Kyshoen Jarrett, in a big spot I'd rather see Vandyke covering a tight end on a flag route to the boundary than Jarrett. The big if's really focus on his health and his ability to play instinctively for the full season after missing so much time with injuries. The labrum tear injury can often lead to chronic shoulder instability.
The labrum — the cartilage rim around the edge of the glenoid — may also tear. This is commonly called a Bankart lesion. A severe first dislocation can lead to continued dislocations, giving out, or a feeling of instability.
That could be a big issue for a position that requires the defender to tackle and regularly take on blocks with their inside shoulder to force runs back inside. In 2012 we saw the damaging impact of a shoulder injury on Kyle Fuller's game, and Vandyke is just as critical a player this season. Vandyke is going to be a non-contact player this spring, so there will be very little discussion about him. However, be certain that if Vandyke is healthy, the Whip will return to Blacksburg, and he will make a major impact.