A significant amount of my columns have been devoted to explaining Bud Foster's defensive scheme. I've discussed the basics of the base 4-2-5, detailed the 46 front that was so prevalent at the end of 2012, and highlighted the unique ways that the Hokie secondary defends the pass without dropping 7 defenders into coverage. There is a single constant across each piece I write; Coach Foster keeps me on my toes. During Saturday's scrimmage, Foster rolled out a rarely seen defensive set, a nickel package that featured a three-man defensive front and keeps the Whip on the field.
The 3-3 look isn't used often, but Foster has used it in obvious passing situations and prevent mode. In the defensive set, the Rover and Free Safety both play deep and drop into deep zones. In prevent situations, they play more than 10 yards deep. On normal passing downs (3rd-and-7 as an example), they line up at their normal 7 yards deep. The Boundary and Field Corner drop deep as well, taking away the deep throw. The Nickel Corner aligns to the slot receiver on the wide side of the field. The Whip moves around based on the offensive alignment. If the offense runs trips to the wide side of the field, the Whip aligns on the least dangerous inside/slot receiver. If the offense lines up in a balanced set (with a tight end or slot to the boundary), the Whip aligns over that receiver. Generally, both the Nickel and the Whip drop into short zones outside of the hash marks. The Mike and Backer alignments are basically the same as the base defense. The Mike aligns to the field side, the Backer aligns to the boundary.
Things change up front. Foster uses a three-man defensive line, with a Nose Tackle aligned over the center and two seven techniques aligned wide of the tackles. From this front, Foster brings a variety of four- and five-man pressures. These pressures feature numerous stunts by the defensive line and blitzes by the Backer and the Mike. One inside linebacker almost always blitzes, while the other drops back into a zone between the hashmarks.
The indelible memory of the 2011 Miami game was Logan Thomas strutting into the end zone on fourth-down, but the Hokie defense had to come on the field and stop Miami after the score. Foster turned to the 30 front. Here is first- through third-down. As you can see, Whip to the boundary, Nickel to the field, and the Backer either delaying his blitz or blitzing while the Mike drops into the deep middle.
During last Saturday's open scrimmage, Foster used the 3-3 package towards the end of the ones versus ones period. Interestingly, instead of keeping Ken Ekanem (who has been outstanding at rushing the passer off the edge throughout spring) on the field, Foster chose to put in his Nickel for Ekanem and keep nose tackle Corey Marshall on the field. Not only did Marshall line up wide of the left tackle, but he rushed from a two-point stance. Marshall promptly beat left tackle Mark Shuman with a hard rip stunt to the inside and chased Mark Leal out of the pocket where he was tackled by the linebacker. At 260 pounds, Marshall doesn't look like a typical Hokie defensive end, but Foster clearly respects Marshall's ability to create havoc with his stunts. By crossing the faces of the offensive linemen on those stunts, Marshall draws attention and frees up the blitzing linebackers with an open path to the quarterback.
"You look at a guy like Corey Marshall, who's 260 pounds but he plays 280," Foster said, likening the situation to Demetrius Taylor, a 273-pound tackle, from a few years ago. "Because he's got great get-off, he's got great hand placement, he's strong as an ox."
On Saturday, Marshall was dominant, and is rapidly becoming a candidate for the most improved player award this spring. If Marshall can generate pass rush from the nose tackle spot while holding up against the run, and provide the versatility to move back to end (where right now I do not think the Hokies have as much quality depth,) the defensive line group (originally thought a position of weakness) looks like it could be the strength of the Hokie defense this season.