For the last three seasons Derrick Hopkins, James Gayle, and J.R. Collins have been comfort food for the Virginia Tech football program. Each was leaned upon heavily early in their respective career to contribute significant snaps in lieu of veterans in the two-deep. Now, Foster and Charley Wiles will again try to address questions about depth along the front line. The defensive end position features a group of young, talented, but unproven defensive ends behind returner Dadi Nicolas, and the defensive tackle position is down to three scholarship players for spring practice with Kris Harley's departure from the program and the movement of Wyatt Teller and Alston Smith to offensive line.
Enter Vincent Mihota. Mihota, a 6-4, 245 pound defensive end from Massaponax High School outside of Fredericksburg, who enrolled in January at Virginia Tech. His teammate Steve Sobczak will join the Hokies this fall at defensive tackle. As a junior, Mihota won his district's defensive player of the year honors. He earned a scholarship offer from Alabama but committed to the Hokies in April of his junior season.
Mihota joins the Hokies at an interesting time. A large number of unproven players will be evaluated as possible contributors along side of Luther Maddy and Dadi Nicolas. Let's take a look at what Mihota can bring to the table in the battle to get snaps on the defensive line last season.
The first thing that stands out on Mihota's film is that he has terrific first step explosion. He does a terrific job of beating the tackle on the snap count, getting into his inside shoulder, and turning his pads and blowing through the hole. I watched his junior and sophomore highlights and lost count of how many running plays Mihota blew up and ran through by getting into the tackle's body before he could set himself to deliver a blow. His first step is really good.
Mihota lines up at left defensive end (over the right tackle) which is normally where Bud Foster aligns his "stud" defensive end. Hudl does us a favor by freezing the play right as the center is snapping the ball, and you will note that Mihota is already coming forward with his hand off the ground and the tackle has not even moved. The opposing offense runs a veer dive with the tackle blocking down. Mihota has such momentum going into the backfield that he gets to the running back before the mesh point can really conclude with the quarterback. Most defensive ends coming up field that hard would be far enough to the outside that the back could slip to the inside while the end takes himself out of the play. Mihota's explosion, angle, and long reach make this a big loss.
Foster has always loved to angle his right defensive ends wide and have them slant hard to the inside of the offensive tackle. In 2011, J.R. Collins had a huge start to the season tracking down runs from behind on hard inside stunts. Even though Mihota plays over the right tackle more often than not on film, I would imagine that he will play at the right defensive end spot for the Hokies. Although, I venture his size will be tempting for his coaches to utilize at stud end. You will remember, bigger defensive ends like John Engelberger had success playing out wide over the left tackle.
On film, you see this quick first step and the effort to run through the inside shoulder of the tackle to make plays time and again against both the run and the pass. Here we see Mihota on another inside stunt on a passing down.
Mihota is again playing over the right tackle, and again he beats the tackle off the snap count. His aiming point is the tackles inside shoulder, which gives him the shortest route to the quarterback and (if the lineman is right handed) takes him through the tackle's weaker "punch" arm. Mihota goes right through the tackle and meets the tailback, who has received the ball on a draw. His first step, bull rush through the inside shoulder, closing speed and wingspan to take away any angle to run on the inside. Between his sophomore and junior highlight films on Hudl, I could probably pick up a dozen similar plays that look just like this one. He loves to beat the tackle to the inside with speed and power.
Because jet sweeps, zone stretch plays, and read options are so prevalent across the college football landscape, a defensive lineman can't be a one dimensional guy shooting a gap. If that's the the case, eventually the opposing offense will figure out a way to trap him and spring a big play. Mihota has some highlights where he reads the attempt to reach block or double team him very well and then holds up at the point of attack to make the play.
Here, Mihota is lined up over the right tackle, but he has to be aware of the potential down block threat from the wing-back lined up to his outside.
At the snap, he correctly reads the tackle taking his first step with his outside foot, and immediately works to the outside shoulder to prevent being reached. As with the other plays, Mihota doesn't really use a leverage move. He powers right through the right shoulder of the tackle and turns his pads. The jet sweep ball carrier should probably cut immediately to the inside, but he tries to beat Mihota's contain. Mihota throws the lefty claw hammer at the back and drags him down for a huge loss. Mihota doesn't tackle as much as he engulfs quarterbacks and running backs.
Mihota also has an excellent motor. He pursues plays that go away from him and his long reach allows him to close on faster players. Here, the opponent throws a quick curl route to the slot receiver opposite of Mihota.
Mihota quickly disengages from the tackle and makes the play on the wide receiver from behind. Mihota is still engaged with the tackle when the throw is made, but tackles the receiver after he has only added around seven yards after the catch. That is tremendous hustle and closing speed.
As with all high school players, there are some flaws in his game. Much like Ken Ekanem coming out of Centreville, you rarely see Mihota using leverage moves in the pass rush. He either beats the defender to the angle with his first step, or he overpowers them. He will need to refine his leverage move techniques under Coach Wiles' tutelage.
Additionally, he is so aggressive attacking to the inside that, unless that was a key fundamental in Massaponax's three-man front defensive scheme, keeping contain could be an issue, especially given how Virginia Tech struggled against mobile quarterbacks last season.
It's also possible he outgrows the defensive end position. On film, Mihota looks like a really skinny kid, and it is hard to believe that he is finished growing, especially with Mike Gentry's strength and conditioning program. With his body type, I think he could carry around 265 or so comfortably without sacrificing any quickness. That being said, it is difficult to find many 6-4+, 265 pound defensive ends that have played under Bud Foster. With defensive tackle depth seriously depleted, will Foster be tempted to move Mihota inside as he did with high school linebacker Chad Beasley? If he does, will Mihota's aggressive, gap shooting quickness be a huge asset, or will it potentially expose the linebackers playing behind him against good offensive lines?
Additionally, and I hate noting this, but Mihota missed a majority of his senior season with a broken foot. How will that, if at all, impact him during spring practice and his freshman campaign?
As is a theme in this class, I really like the upside of this kid. Alabama's offer demonstrates that he definitely has the potential to be a difference making defensive end in Virginia Tech's system. With Nicolas, Ekanem, Dooley, Alford, Marshall, and Roth all in the mix outside, Mihota will have to have a breakout spring to avoid a redshirt this year, and that will be a tall order coming off a lost season and a foot injury. But, with a glaring lack of size on the defensive front, a surprisingly dominant spring coupled with a need for size could put Mihota in position to contribute in the fall.