Virginia Tech will open 2014 spring practice with only three scholarship defensive tackles on the roster (Luther Maddy, Nigel Williams, and Woody Baron). Former Division 3 transfer Wade Hansen will be eligible and get some second team repetitions, and perhaps a defensive end will move inside. Either way, it is not a deep group, and Maddy is by far the biggest guy. I am sure that Maddy and Williams will be an excellent starting pair, and despite his small size, Baron did an excellent job of holding up against much bigger blockers in a limited role, but the lack of size and depth is deeply worrisome. For the 2014 Hokies to be successful, they will need immediate contributions from one or both of their freshman defensive tackles, Ricky Walker and Steve Sobczak.
Are Walker and Sobczak up to the task? Before evaluating a defensive tackle prospect in Virginia Tech's system, you must understand that Bud Foster's gap defense requires a unique skill set from their defensive tackles. At Virginia Tech, a defensive tackle must get to a spot (often a spot that isn't the instinctive place to go to chase the football) and either make a play, or resist being driven from that spot. The concept is similar to a blitz on defense. On a running play, each defender goes to a spot, with the purpose of driving the runner to an area where an unblocked defender awaits to make the tackle. In many cases, a defensive tackle in the system must move laterally and cross the face of a blocker, and then hold that gap position. If he doesn't get to his assigned gap, he opens up a hole. If he gets to the gap and moves too far laterally, he opens up space between him and the defender assigned to the gap on the inside. Even though it is aggressive, it is a defense that is run like an offense. Players have assigned places to go, just like an offensive play, and the defensive advantage is that the offense doesn't know where the defenders are going. Because it isn't instinctive, the gap defense can create havoc in an offensive blocking scheme, but, it can often be a struggle to adjust for great athletes who grow up playing in defenses where they blow blockers up and chase the football.
Here is a terrific example of how VT's defensive tackles must play. Pitt runs a power sweep play to their left. Watch the defensive tackles closely.
The two uncovered linemen for Pitt (the left tackle and the center) pull. The Pitt left guard is assigned to reach block Derrick Hopkins, while the right guard has to reach Luther Maddy. To beat the reach block, Hopkins (who in person is about 5-11) gets his head to the play side, and works underneath the left arm of the left guard. He works at an angle tracking to the sideline to cut off the running back from going outside. If he gets too far from Luther Maddy, or if Big Lu doesn't beat his reach block, a huge hole opens up in the middle where Jack Tyler is alone with a blocker and the back, and moving laterally. It could spell doom. Derrick forces the cutback, and Maddy has used a similar technique (after having some initial trouble) to beat the reach block of the right guard. The back cuts right back into Maddy. He tries to cut back behind Maddy, but there in the next gap is James Gayle pursuing down the line. Josh Trimble at whip then ends up with weak side contain (screen, throwback, reverse, bootleg rule), indicating that a safety has man coverage on the slot receiver where Trimble aligned. Maddy is too quick for his blocker. He and Gayle make the tackle for no gain.
The key here is the technique. Both Hopkins and Maddy know that if their guard takes a certain step, they are running to a spot, not the ball. Once they get to that spot, if they can make the tackle, fantastic. But, they can't lose control of that gap or else they open up holes. This requirement lends itself to an archetype of a defensive lineman that isn't always popular with recruiting services. You need a defensive tackle that tends to be shorter and shaped like a fire hydrant to work under the reach blocks of those 6-4 type guards that scouts covet. They must be smart and selfless to understand their keys and to resist their instinct to chase the football. They must move well laterally, and then have tremendous lower body strength to resist being driven across the gap once they have arrived (being short helps gain leverage here as well).
Versatile Excellence: Ricky Walker
After watching Ricky Walker's film the first time, I immediately wanted him in Chicago Maroon and Burnt Orange. At 6-2, 275 pounds, the Rivals.com four-star recruit from Bethel High School was utilized as an eagled nose tackle in the middle of a true 50 front. In a four-man front, Bethel utilized Walker as both a 1-technique and 3-technique defensive tackle, and on passing downs they moved him out to end. Against Phoebus and Marshawn Williams, Bethel moved Walker back to middle linebacker on some passing downs. He was productive at all four positions, and dominant as a nose tackle. In high school football with very limited practice time, it takes a very high football IQ to be productive at multiple positions, especially on the defensive line. Bud Foster stated clearly on National Signing Day that Walker, "Has the ability to come in and be an impact player right away." As a senior, Walker had 11 sacks, 15 tackles for a loss, and 73 tackles despite missing two games with injuries. As a junior, Walker also put up 11 sacks while being moved all over the defense by Coach Bubba Hooker.
Walker was a very productive run defender at all three defensive tackle alignments. On film, he has a very quick first step into his assigned gap, and he consistently has low pad level. He gets underneath the pads of the centers and guards, stands them up, and then slides off the block. His preferred gap technique is a rip move, where he lowers his shoulder closest to the blocker and rips his arm through. His pad level and ability to cross the blocker's face to secure his gap makes him an excellent fit in Bud Foster's scheme. He has solid closing speed and demonstrates the ability to recover if he loses his gap fit.
In pass rushing situations, the Bethel staff used Walker as both a 3-technique and a defensive end. He isn't a dynamic speed rusher, but he has outstanding technique with multiple pass rush moves. At end, his strongest move is a two-step bull rush to get a blocker's momentum moving backwards, and then a hard inside rip technique. His second move starts with a bull rush, and then a quick swim move to the inside and outside shoulder. Finally, he gets sacks using a classic push-pull technique off the bull rush along with a straight bull rush. Even though he doesn't have blistering speed, each technique is incredibly sharp for a high school player.
While Walker isn't the biggest defensive tackle, he seems to be more comfortable playing as either a one technique or as a nose tackle eagled to one side of the center or the other. He works through the reach blocks of both guards and the center and collapses the middle of the offense. While I spent some time watching Walker's tremendous highlight reel, I wanted to see Walker against top competition. His battle with fellow Hokie Marshawn Williams proved to be excellent for a deep evaluation.
Bethel's game against Phoebus was Walker's first game returning from injury, and Bethel played a five man defensive line for most of the game with Walker lining up as nose tackle on most plays. It became very apparent early in the game that Williams would not have much space up the middle. Let's watch Walker in action.
Here, Williams runs a lead dive. Walker's assignment is to cross the face of the center and force Williams to cut outside.
As he did most of the game, Walker destroys the center (who can't get help from the guard due to the defensive tackle lined up on him.) Walker meets Williams just past the mesh point. In the Hokie system, that would force the running back to bounce outside, likely into the arms of the outside linebacker playing a force technique. Walker takes it to the next level. Even with the center holding him, he manages to trip up Williams and spin him to the ground. That is tremendous strength at the point of attack.
Phoebus continued to attack the inside, and Walker continued to collapse the middle. Here, Williams runs a power lead. Walker is still aligned as a nose tackle eagled on the left shoulder of the center.
Again, he crosses the face of the center, steps into the bubble behind the fullback lead, and slams Marshawn right after he takes the handoff. Even a player as talented and strong as Williams can't do much when he doesn't get downhill.
Walker also can move laterally and sustain his gap fit, although he is a little taller than the typical Hokie defensive tackle. I know his listed weight and size, but when I look at him I think around 6-3 and maybe 260 is more accurate. He uses his hands to keep blockers at bay, but he can bend and get underneath the reach block. As the game wore on, Phoebus started to work to the outside. Walker was very effective at beating the block, moving laterally, and getting himself in position to make a tackle on Williams when the contain forces him to cut inside.
The defensive framework for Virginia Tech requires controlled pursuit, and Walker beats the center in dominant fashion, but doesn't over-pursue Williams in the process. While watching him move, he looks like a bigger version of John Graves. He also looks like he will be a little better taking on double teams at the point of attack.
Walker is an excellent pass rusher as well. Bethel used him inside and tackle and as a 4-3 end at different points in the season. Like Hopkins and Maddy, Walker uses his rip and swim technique. However, he has the ability to change directions and cover more range than a typical Hokie defensive tackle. Bud loves designer stunts. Imagine how much he salivates when he sees a defensive tackle do this.
Walker takes a jab step into the guard, and then the defensive end crashes to the inside. Walker twists outside, and gets to the edge to contain the quarterback. The twist is impressive, but perhaps most impressive is that he doesn't take a direct line to the quarterback. He takes an angle to the outside to keep contain and not let the quarterback scramble to the edge. That is strong assignment football, and a defensive tackle in Bud Foster's system must adhere to their assignments to get on the field.
As I indicated when Walker signed, I fully expect him to be the second team three-technique tackle on the first day of fall camp. With Maddy moving on after 2014, I would expect Walker to move over to nose as a sophomore.
The Diamond in the Rough: Steve Sobczak
On Virginia Tech's signing day show, perhaps no player seemed to get Bud Foster as excited as Steve Sobczak. Sobczak is a 6-1, 285 pound defensive tackle, and high school teammate of 2014 Tech signee Vince Mihota (Massaponax). Virginia Tech had initially offered Sobczak on the condition that he grayshirt. Sobczak instead planned to go to JMU until the Hokies changed their offer. Sobczak finished the season with 21 tackles for a loss while seeing time at nose tackle and as a 3-4 defensive end.
So, why was Foster so giddy, especially over a player whose only other offer was from James Madison? When you look at the film, it quickly becomes apparent that Sobczak has the unique skillset and size required by a Virginia Tech defensive tackle, and that just isn't easy to find with many high school players. Sobczak didn't get much recruiting attention because he allowed his weight to balloon to over 320 pounds as a junior and didn't have the stamina to be an every down defensive lineman. As a senior, he cut his weight down to 285 and after Mihota's injury, he was athletic enough to play nose tackle and a little bit of defensive end in Massaponax's three-man front.
When I watched Sobczak's highlights, the first thing I like is that he understands how to use leverage. He rarely takes on a block head up. He slants under and then up through the play side shoulder of the defender, and then has the speed and "bend" to fight through the block without losing his balance or allowing the blocker to recover. Let's review an example.
Here, the offense runs a power lead play away from Sobczak (who is playing right defensive end). Just like Maddy in the play we reviewed from the Pitt game, Sobczak is lined up away from where the ball goes.
The tight end has to reach block Sobczak. At the snap, Sobczak crosses the face of the tight end, and dips his shoulder underneath the tight end's right arm. When Coach Foster and Coach Wiles talk about "bend", that is what they mean. Can they turn at a sharp angle, under duress, and then continue to run to the football at a good angle? Sobczak fights through the block, and still has the quickness to cut the running back off on the other side of the formation.
There are numerous plays where Sobczak beats his man cleanly with a hard rip or a quick swim move. He works with good pad level (low to high) and he looks to attack a leverage point through the shoulder of the blocker. He takes good angles to the football, and has a good first step, all skills that we saw this year from Maddy and Hopkins.
However, hustle and pursuit have separated Maddy and Hopkins from some of their predecessors. Both guys worked to be playmakers once they executed their assignments. They run to the football once the play has broken down. As a result, both players have a proven track record of not only being reliable, but also making big plays. Maddy lead the team in sacks and tackles for a loss. Derrick Hopkins history of big plays, especially on fourth downs, is well documented. Sobczak's highlight film demonstrates similar work ethic.
In his film, Sobczak impresses with his pursuit. As a nose tackle in a 3-4, you wouldn't expect Sobczak to be dropping back to defend screens, but sure enough, there he is tracking down running backs from behind.
This is an interesting play, because it starts with a mistake. Sobczak reads the screen late. He is initially beaten. But, he runs 20 yards and chases down the back from behind. On his film, you see several plays where Sobczak chases down ball carriers in pursuit. He doesn't have all-world speed. He isn't the biggest or most talented guy out there. But on these plays, he demonstrates Lunch Pail effort.
Did I mention he is more athletic than most will give him credit for? Massaponax uses Sobczak as a short yardage fullback. And, they do give him the football.
On film, it is easy to see why Coach Foster is high on the kid. As for areas of improvement, I think he needs to become more comfortable with taking on blockers with his hands and getting extension. He uses leverage moves well, but when he takes his first step out of his stance, his hands are low. Here, Sobczak gets a great first step, does a rip move under the hands of the blocker, bends back and pursues back to his left to make the sack.
At first glance, it is a terrific play. But, when you rewatch it, and most of his other highlights, you notice that coming out of his stance he holds his hands very low (almost at waist level). That works if you are shooting a gap with a rip move on a zone play, or rushing the passer from the interior without draw responsibility. However, Foster's defense doesn't require the tackles to stunt every play. Sometimes, they have to take on a double team at the point of attack. And, against Georgia Tech, those tackles will be forced to take on cut blocks. A d-tackle does that by getting his hands on the blocker early and dictating where he goes. If he plays against a good offensive line with his hands that low every play, he is giving up his chest. That isn't a good thing if the ball is coming right at you and you are not quick enough to beat the block at the point of attack.
Both Walker and Sobczak are promising prospects that ultimately will be very effective Hokies. Unfortunately, because of the lack of depth it is likely that both could be thrown into the fire as true freshmen. They will struggle at times as they add strength and learn the scheme, but both will have a an opportunity to be significant contributors in Blacksburg for a long time.