No member of Virginia Tech's incoming class is perhaps as highly anticipated and shrouded in mystery as Holland Fisher. Fisher, an Under Armour All-American safety from Manchester High School in Midlothian, Virginia, was one of the highest ranked players in the Hokies' 2013 signing class. Tech had to fend off a late push for Fisher by Alabama that included breakfast at Nick Saban's house. In the end, Fisher remained committed to Virginia Tech, but had to prep at Fork Union. Fisher signed with Tech again last February, and now that he's qualified will enroll in Tech's first summer school session on May 27.
For me, that is where the mystery begins. Fisher was regarded as a preeminent safety prospect. At 6-2, 210 pounds, Fisher harkens back to the days of the big, intimidating Hokie safety ala Kam Chancellor or Aaron Rouse. However, when I watched high school film of Fisher, he was used almost exclusively at the inside linebacker spot. Fork Union used Fisher as a free safety, but FUMA head coach Mark Shuman told the Roanoke Times Doug Doughty, "Holland Fisher played free safety, had one interception, had a couple sacks. He's a pretty good player. I think Fisher will be more of an outside linebacker. He's got good speed, good range. With what they like to do, I think he'll that rover-whip type guy."
I'm not entirely convinced that Fisher ends up as a safety, rover, or whip. With his size, speed, and skill set, there are a variety of potential positions that Fisher could excel at. The position he ultimately will play will depend significantly on the scheme that Coach Bud Foster can utilize with available talent at other positions. Don't even be shocked if you hear Fisher's name batted around at one of the two inside linebacker spots in Bud Foster's attack defense.
In high school, Fisher played at one of the two inside linebacker spots in a variety of defensive sets along with either a 4- or 5-man defensive front. If you read my basics of the Hokie defensive scheme, you will recall that the Hokies run a base defense with three linebackers and a four-man front, but rather than the backer playing as a true 4-3 outside linebacker, he has many of the responsibilities of a 3-4 inside linebacker on the strong side. The backer aligns to the tight end side. He has the responsibility of gap filling at the point of attack against the run. It requires a unique combination of size and speed; size to take on blockers at the point of attack, and speed to get to the edge and not be sealed inside. Jake Johnson had outstanding size at the point of attack, but he didn't have the athleticism to make critical tackles in space at the position. Bruce Taylor often struggled in space until Foster started using him more aligned on the edge. Lyndell Gibson could get to the edge, but was often blown up on zone blocks. Replacing Tariq Edwards, who had a unique combination of power and speed at the point of attack won't be easy. As you will see, Fisher has that knack of shedding blocks and making tackles at the point of attack, and he has the athleticism to force the edge in space.
In the same system, the whip and the rover both have edge force responsibility. The rover often finds himself in primary run support with force responsibility to the boundary, as most teams align their tight end and run to the boundary side. In the base 8-man front look, the whip aligns at the line of scrimmage on the edge (almost like a wingback for the defense), and works to force runs inside or spill plays outside to the unblocked free safety depending on the call. In the more traditional 7-man front with the rover aligned deep like a strong safety, the whip aligns wider than a normal 4-3 outside linebacker. Through alignment, the defense tries to bait teams to run outside to the boundary, slant to that side (which forces the runner to cut back), and then the whip flies in as the unblocked man and makes the tackle on the cutback. The backer and rover become the "point of attack" defenders who force the play most often, and that frees up the Mike linebacker, the whip "field safety", and the free safety to make tackles.
The Mike linebacker also aligns away from the strength, and while the Mike tends to fit gaps that are straight in front of him, the design of the Hokie slants usually sets up the Mike linebacker to be unblocked against spread defenses. Both the Mike and the backer both have very little pass responsibility, freeing up each to read the play, help the defensive line on draws, screens, or scrambles, and occasionally clog up the passing lanes to the short-middle of the field.
After watching Fisher's film, and given his size, I am convinced he has the physical stature and tools to play the role of backer, Mike, and whip. I wouldn't be shocked if he played as a free hitting Mike linebacker, especially against spread teams. At the same time, he has all the natural attributes to be a dynamic run support safety who can excel as an alley player in space. Let's take a look at the film and see why.
First, we look at Fisher defending the run at the point of attack. Here, Manchester's opponent runs a power play, with an offensive lineman reaching Fisher and then the back side guard pulling and leading the back through the hole.
The end result is a pretty successful five yard gain by the offense, but Fisher prevents it from being a much bigger play. First, he sheds the reach block of the play side guard. Second, he slips off the pulling guard. He maintains his outside leverage gap fit and remains square to tackle the runner. He then makes the solid tackle.
Here again we see a running play, this time a power isolation with the fullback leading on the linebacker, to the strength right at Fisher.
Fisher steps into the gap for his fit, sheds the fullback, and then swallows up the tailback for a short game. This is perfect backer technique.
The film is a testament to Fisher's ability to play one of the two inside linebacker positions. He doesn't make many big plays on the film, but on each play you see consistency. He reads his keys. He has terrific closing speed as a spill player or as a force player. Furthermore, at the point of attack he has great "bend," meaning that he can contort his body to get off blocks, but still have the balance to make the tackle. Here is an excellent example where is he playing a Mike linebacker role, coming in to make the tackle on the back side of a play.
Again the offense runs the power lead from the pistol, this time away from Fisher. Instead of flying forward and getting gummed up in traffic, Fisher reads his keys. He steps forward to fill his gap, reads the guard pulling, and then he uses the defensive tackles as a screen to hide from the pulling guard. When the guard turns up into the hole, Fisher slips right in behind him to fill using his terrific short range closing speed. This is a perfect example of a gap fit, and the end result is a nice boring tackle for no gain. Jack Tyler was a master at this technique. If the blocker got a body on Tyler, he often struggled to shed the block. But, he could time hitting his gap fit where he would either trail the play and slip behind a blocker, or beat a blocker to the point of attack. It is difficult to count how many times Tyler ended up making those tackles for a short loss, right behind where the center snapped the ball. Fisher has those instincts, and still has the quickness to drop back and play in coverage or play on the edge.
Again, Fisher's playing the Mike linebacker role on this play against the spread. The opponent aligns trips to the field. Fisher aligns to the wide side of the field (where the Mike would align in Bud Foster's defense versus the same set).
The offense runs a speed option to the boundary. The "backer" to the boundary gets to the outside edge and forces the quarterback to turn inside. The defensive line creates an "alley" (unblocked lane) for Fisher to fill. Fisher reads his key to confirm there isn't a counter, lets the alley develop, and steps into the hole to crush the quarterback with a big hit. This is textbook Mike linebacker play against the spread, and in the 4-2-5 with the whip on the field, the whip often has this responsibility as the Mike deals with the extra blocker.
Here Fisher is aligned to the weak side. The opponent runs a power lead with a wham block from the motion wingback. It is a heavy overload, where the offense outnumbers the defense at the point of attack.
Fisher trails the motion man one step behind the play. He works through the reach block easily, and makes the tackle for a short gain. This is another example of textbook technique for both the whip in the 4-2-5 base look or the Mike against a spread with the nickel in the game. He has the anticipation and the timing to make the correct read. He has the athleticism and the "bend" to beat the block and still be in position to make the tackle.
Again, the opponents run away from Fisher. Fisher scrapes across and doesn't just fill the hole. He wallops the running back with an intimidating tackle. The Hokie defense has been very good the last two seasons, but it has lacked an intimidating presence that makes running backs fear touching the football.
These plays are not very exciting to the normal eye, but it's easy to take for granted how important the gap fit, force/spill, and alley techniques are until a defender busts an assignment. Against Boston College, the entire Virginia Tech front played an excellent football game. They filled gaps and tackled Andre Williams more often than not. But, there were a handful of plays where the safety or linebacker did not complete their assignment. As I highlighted in my Boston College film review, Bonner had a critical breakdown on the first play following an Eagles fourth down stop. Bonner was unblocked coming from his free safety spot with Antone Exum forcing the run inside. Bonner was all by himself with Williams, but he doesn't find the football, and Williams was off to the races for what resulted in the game winning touchdown.
Do you think Bud Foster would have like to have had Holland Fisher on this play? I sure would have.
The highlight film doesn't feature enough plays in pass defense to get a real good idea of how comfortable Fisher is in man and zone coverage. However, he does make two nice plays in coverage. Here he drops into the flat to undercut a throw to a running back on a clear out pattern.
Note, this easily could be the rover jumping the flat as the tailback leaks out, or the backer taking that running back if the rover is aligned deep.
Again, Fisher is an inside linebacker, and he has man coverage on the running back in the flat.
I don't think anyone will scream "Deion Sanders!" watching those clips, but he has the range, speed, and instincts to be effective reading the play in coverage. His upside won't completely be revealed until we see how he adapts to the coverage techniques that Torrian Gray teaches. If he doesn't acclimate quickly, that may be an early indicator that his future will be at linebacker. One this is for sure though, Fisher is an intimidating tackler both inside and in space. Foster will find room for him somewhere.
After digesting the versatility and talent Fisher brings to the table, it becomes very difficult to determine where he will play. However, it's clear that you want him on the field. You want him moving towards the line of scrimmage with his eyes in the backfield. You want him reading the play. Without the footage of him playing man coverage, it would be difficult to see Fisher being used as a free safety. Foster has used Eddie Whitley and Bonner essentially as an extra deep corner, but he could fill an immediate need for a playmaker at any of the three linebacker spots. He certainly can play the inside linebacker role of the rover in a 46 defensive front that Kyshoen Jarrett manned down the stretch in 2012, and his closing speed and range could pay huge dividends as a deep strong safety. Watching how Fisher moves, his closing speed, and the way guys react to his contact, it is VERY easy to envision Kam Chancellor. I hate setting this level of expectation again, but watch Fisher's entire Hudl highlight reel, then watch this highlight reel of Kam Chancellor, and then tell me you don't see the same kind of potential.
The ability to make tackles at the point of attack and as an alley player; the impact of collisions, and the movement and closing speed as a pass defender reading the play absolutely scream Kam Chancellor. Coverage will be the initial challenge, so I expect Fisher to play around the line of scrimmage early in his career as Foster protects him from being targeted like teams have picked on Hokie safeties since Foster started to use the 4-4 G coverage concepts in the late 2000's. But, with Bonner and Jarrett graduating, and C.J. Reavis having excellent coverage safety potential, it won't be long before Fisher could be the elite wrecking ball run support safety that the Hokies have lacked since Chancellor graduated. That is of course, unless he's starting at Mike, backer, or whip.