Even though Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards were only full time starters for two seasons, their dependable play week in, and week out, made me feel like they were in the lineup forever. As spring practice kicks off, Bud Foster finds himself with perhaps the most inexperienced group of linebackers he's had since Barquell Rivers and Jake Johnson started against Alabama in 2009. Tyler and Edwards set a high standard for preparation, communication, and execution which are all paramount for a system in which every player must defend their appropriate gap or watch the ball carrier go off to the races. Chase Williams, Deon Clarke, Andrew Motuapuaka, and Dahman McKinnon are each talented players, but they have big shoes to fill behind a defensive line that only returns one starter.
The prototypical Bud Foster inside linebacker, like so much of the Hokies defensive personnel, is a hybrid. The average fan has been conditioned to expect the middle linebacker (or inside linebackers in the 3-4 defense) to be pursuit players. They read keys and find the football. The outside linebacker is an edge player who can rush the passer, play in space, occasionally play pass coverage, and most often contain plays and force them to the inside. These truisms are reinforced for all of us who spend our Sundays being babysat by the likes of Dan Dierdorf. However, Bud Foster's mike and backer play a much different role.
Foster's front six (defensive line, the mike and backer) work as a six man unit to defend the run. Rather than depending on reading and reacting, Foster assigns each of the six players to a gap. Usually, the defensive line will slant hard to the play side. The inside linebacker to the play side fills a gap on the edge (most often the backer) and the weak side inside linebacker (usually the mike) is a free hitter who comes from the back side to make the tackle. If the play side linebacker loses his gap fit, the back doesn't cut back to the free hitter. If the free hitter misses the tackle or gets caught up in traffic, there isn't an unblocked player to make the tackle, especially if the safety support is playing man coverage. Foster will occasionally mix up the assignments, so instead of the play side backer forcing the play to the inside, they will take an inside gap fit and "spill" the running back wide, where one of the "alley players" (usually the whip or a safety) are unblocked and in position to make a tackle. It is a high risk approach. It maximizes productivity when it works because defenders don't have to account for multiple gaps, but it is high risk in that one blown assignment usually results in a big play.
Over the years, Hokie linebackers have fit atypical linebacker body types. The backer tends to be the more athletic player because generally they line up to the running strength of the formation. They fill from the middle to the edge, and while they have to be stout enough to take on a block and force the play inside, they also have to be fast enough to not be reach blocked on the edge. The backer usually plays head over the strong side guard, except in the 46 look where he lines up as a 7-technique on the line and outside the tight end. The best Hokie backers have been athletic players who also could play with the lower body leverage to take on blocks. Xavier Adibi and Tariq Edwards were long, fast players who were strong at the point of attack. Bruce Taylor was stellar at the point of attack, but wasn't as quick and often struggled with contain and pass coverage responsibility until Bud Foster turned to the 46 look at the end of the 2012 season. Jake Johnson was extremely strong and lengthy at the point of attack, but wasn't athletic enough to tackle in space. Along with the rover, I regard backer as the most challenging position on defense. The position requires a rare balance of athleticism, power, and self-sacrifice. For the backer, the fit comes before the tackle. The guys who chase the ball before making the fit do not earn Bud Foster's trust.
The mike linebacker either lines up over the center, or over the 3-gap away from the strength of the formation. While the backer will spill to the outside and fill a gap, the mike with try to shoot a gap on the back side of running plays and meet the running back in the cutback hole. If the mike can't get to the cutback lane, he has to be stout at the point of attack and jam up the play until an alley player (whip, free safety, or rover) can support the run. Mike linebackers (with the notable exception of Bruce Taylor) have tended to be shorter, stocky players. They are not always the fastest guys running east-west, but they are quick to attack their assignment and play with great leverage at the point of attack. Where a 4-3 middle linebacker like Luke Kuechly makes tackles sideline to sideline, the most memorable plays from Jack Tyler and Vince Hall saw them shooting through the gap and making tackles for a one-yard loss, usually right behind where the center snapped the ball. The mike linebacker must be assertive and explosive, and smart enough to also call the defensive front slants and pressures throughout the game.
The Four Options at Inside Linebacker
The inside linebacker positions have seen a tremendous amount of attrition over the years. Barquell Rivers and Taylor both struggled with injuries. Lyndell Gibson, Jake Johnson, Telvion Clark, and Brian Laiti all washed out of the program. Virginia Tech and Foster missed out on high profile recruits Stephone Anthony and Travis Hughes. Foster now finds himself looking for dependable solutions from four talented, but inexperienced players. Andy Bitter picked up a great quote from Foster where he revealed a little of how he needs his inside linebackers to play.
You get, for example, a guy like Tariq Edwards and Jack Tyler, if an offense ran a power, my guys would be able to tell you exactly who their play-side blocking threat is. Right now. [snaps] These guys I'm asking right now, they wouldn't be able to tell you a lick right now. I don't think.
Lack of depth and injuries presented Chase Williams an opportunity to compete for playing time as a true freshman in 2010. After an impressive spring Coach Beamer considered removing William's redshirt as the linebacker corps became depleted. Unfortunately the 6-2 220 pound former three-star recruit struggled with injuries early in his career and watched Tyler and Edwards pass him up for starting jobs. Early in his career, the staff could not say enough good things about Williams, who has bounced back and forth at both the mike and backer positions. However, when asked about Williams this offseason, Foster said I mean, you're talking at linebacker, Chase Williams is coming back. He's started one game, but he's been primarily a special teams guy. That isn't exactly a ringing endorsement.
Count me as one of the doubters about Williams. While most of his practice time has been at the mike position, his only start came at the backer position (when he replaced an injured Bruce Taylor against Austin Peay. Against FCS competition, Williams had trouble getting to his gap fit and then shedding blockers to make tackles from the backer spot.
Austin Peay has a second-and-10. The Governors align in an unbalanced I formation to the wide side of the field. Williams is aligned as the backer to the top of the screen over the tight end (who is a tackle-eligible on the play).
Peay runs a basic power lead, with the fullback kicking out, the back side guard pulling and leading through the hole. The left side of the offensive line blocks down on the defensive line and the two linebackers. Williams's assignment is to fit in the right guard-right tackle gap. He has two choices. He either has to read the play quickly and try to slip under the down block. That is the high risk play, and he makes the correct read not to try it. The better choice is to get depth and scrape across the top of the tackle's down block. No matter what, he has to avoid the block or he has to take a circular route and take the down block with his left shoulder. He can't get sealed inside by taking on the block with his right shoulder, or he will get sealed inside. Well, he scrapes slowly and doesn't get enough depth to avoid the block. Worse, he takes on the block with his right shoulder.
Williams is also way too high to take on a block effectively. A good back play would result in this well-executed call gaining five yards. Instead, the backer isn't there and the play gains a first down.
Two plays later, Williams again misses his gap fit and struggles to get off a block. He is lined up as the inside backer to the top of the screen.
Despite some of these struggles, Williams bounced back as the defense started to play better. Foster started to use Williams as the backer on the edge in the 46 alignment. He did an outstanding job in force responsibility, taking on blocks with his inside shoulder and squeezing the play back to the inside for the free hitter to make the tackle.
He also had a tackle for a loss and several pressures from the 46 alignment. If there is one thing we have learned from Bud Foster, if he has players that may be limited but have one unique skill, he can adapt his system to put them in position to make plays. Alonzo Tweedy may have been a whip, but he was getting up field every play. Dadi Nicolas was used in a similar fashion last year, and Bruce Taylor thrived in the 46 alignment at the end of 2012. Williams could be a similar case, where Foster uses him at backer and plays him on the edge like Taylor.
Williams would be a favorite to win a starting job based on his experience, but he could be at backer or at mike. The key to the linebacking group is Deon Clarke. Clarke is a 6-2, 210 pound, rising junior, and was regarded by Rivals.com as the top outside linebacker in the Commonwealth in 2012.
Clarke had an outstanding 2013 spring game at the backer spot. He was physical at the point of attack, especially on the first offensive series of the game where he (#40) beat fullback's reach block on three consecutive plays to force Trey Edmunds back into the teeth of the defense and out of the end zone.
Clarke can bring playmaking at the point of attack to go along with completing his gap fit assignment. The Virginia Tech fullbacks had trouble with Clarke all game long. He diagnosed plays quickly, and beat the blocker to the spot several times to make plays in the backfield.
When the first team offense ran away from Clarke, he demonstrated that he was much quicker and more assertive than Williams. Throughout the game, he was quick to the football, and delivered several hard hits. What I liked most is that he challenged blockers aggressively and shed them to make the tough tackles inside that most observers don't notice, but that prevent big plays. Here, for example, the orange team runs an inside zone.
Clarke has the responsibility to fit the cutback lane on the inside zone. He runs through the back shoulder of left guard Mark Shuman, taking Shuman on at his weakest point. Clarke then has the athleticism to make the tackle. It looks rather mundane, but this is a tough play. When Clarke makes the tackle, it looks routine. If he got caught too far inside, it would have been a long gain.
Clarke was also excellent in underneath coverage throughout the scrimmage, but he did demonstrate one flaw. His pursuit was so aggressive that Coach Loeffler started to pick on him with some counter and bootleg action later in the scrimmage. Clarke would get caught inside, and the Hokies offense gained yards back off his outside shoulder.
After some off the field issues, Clarke has to earn back the trust of the coaching staff. He is the most talented linebacker on the roster. If his mind is right, he has the talent to be the Hokies best backer since Xavier Adibi.
Williams is the safe bet to win the job at mike linebacker, but don't sleep on Andrew Motuapuaka.
At 5-11, 224 pounds, Motuapuaka has the perfect frame for a Bud Foster mike linebacker. He has a low center of gravity and plays with great leverage. He is aggressive through the center-guard gap and hammers ball carriers. He doesn't fool around with blockers. I am not sure how well he plays in space or coverage (I don't have any film besides his highlight reel), but his physical attributes and style of play are exactly what Foster looks for in a mike. Also, with depth so precious, and the only likely reinforcements true freshmen, don't be shocked if you see Motuapauka taking some reps at backer as well in spring scrimmages.
Devin Vandyke also could fight for the starting job in the fall. Vandyke had a stellar 2013 spring game (he was my MVP), and has terrific instincts for being a free hitter at the mike spot. Unfortunately for Devin, his recovery from ACL surgery was delayed by an infection in the joint. That set back his timetable for return considerably, which could put his chance to be ready for the beginning of fall camp in jeopardy. I would have expected Vandyke to win the starting job if he was healthy.
Rotating with Clarke will be Dahman McKinnon. McKinnon replaced Clarke on the depth chart when Clarke was suspended, and the 6-1, 207 pound backer contributed 11 tackles on punt and kickoff coverage. McKinnon was a workout warrior. He set the school record for the inside linebacker position with a 4.4, 40, and also recorded a 39 inch vertical leap. More importantly, at a position where short range speed to beat blockers to the edge is critical, McKinnon had the best 10 yard dash time on the team clocking in at 1.59 seconds.
However, McKinnon must prove that he can take on blockers at the point of attack, and in fall scrimmages he didn't look instinctive on the field. He is a young player who has all the tools to get much better with experience, but Clarke may be more suited to play now if he can win back the trust of the coaching staff.
With so little experience, only one thing is certain: Bud Foster will put the players who can best execute his system on the field. Based on the film that I have watched, and the buzz heard in the fall, I expect that Foster will sacrifice what little experience he has to put his most explosive pairing on the field. Based on the film, that pair is Clarke and Motuapuaka. Unlike some of the personnel decisions seen on offense in the past, Foster is not opposed to playing a younger, more talented player if that player can execute the scheme. We saw it with James Anderson (replacing Brandon Manning) and Bruce Taylor (replacing Barquell Rivers). Unless Williams has an outstanding spring, and Motuapuaka shows that he isn't ready for the rigors of calling defenses while still being playmaker, I fully expect the Hokies to have two linebackers making their first career starts against William & Mary at the end of August. Let's hope that their talent can overcome both their lack of experience, and if not let's hope talented defensive linemen like Luther Maddy and Dadi Nicolas can give them time to work through any growing pains.