Spring Practice Film Study: Zone Stretch Beats Gap Defense

Today, I'm going to break down two basic principles of the Virginia Tech offense and defense matched against each other—the zone stretch versus the gap fit.

In Bud Foster's gap defense, each of the front-six defenders (all four down linemen and the two inside linebackers) have responsibility to attack a gap and either make a play in the gap or occupy it without being driven out. The outside "linebacker-safeties" (Whip and Rover) are edge players. Based on a defensive call they either "force" the play, playing outside contain to force the running back to the inside, or "spill" the play, attacking the inside shoulder of the running back, forcing him to bounce outside to an unblocked alley player which is often the free safety. Against teams that zone block running plays, the normal "key" for an interior player is go where the offensive lineman goes, cross his face, and fit the gap to his outside.

Versatile Ronny Vandyke can Rejuvenate the Whip Position

Spring football, much like the season itself, is a time of renewal. We're eager to learn more about the new group of Hokies and how they can contribute and star in the program moving forward. At the same time, perhaps we overlook players who have been in the program for an extended period of time. Case in point is the Whip position. The Whip has been utilized so little since the Boise State game that many consider the nickel defense the "base" set for Virginia Tech.

Hokie Football 101: Defensive Line Basics

In a recent post, VTGuitarMan asked "What defines a nose tackle? In my naive view, I always equated NT with the middle guy in a 3-man front, lined up over center. I'm guessing that's not true, or otherwise Foster's scheme modifies that terminology." As always, I am more than happy to oblige with an answer.

First, it is important to understand the difference between the name of the position and technique. The Hokies have four defensive line positions in their system.

Defensive Line Note: Vinny Mihota to get Reps at DT

According to the latest interview with Bud Foster on Hokiesports.com, Vince Mihota will get reps inside to back up Luther Maddy as the No. 2, three-technique defensive tackle.

"We're also going to probably look at Vinny Mihota some inside," Foster said in the interview while discussing depth along the defensive line.

Foster's initial stream of consciousness suggested that this is a short term move, necessitated by "class conflicts" with guys who may miss some practice time (I am guessing that would be Wade Hansen). He also said it gives the Hokie defensive staff an opportunity to get Mihota more reps and time on the field for evaluation.

Interestingly though, Foster finished the thought with, "He's going to grow into that [defensive tackle] position when it's all said and done."

Position Battles and What to Watch for Prior to the First Spring Practice

Here we go folks. Spring football kicks off today with a 4:30-6:30 PM practice. There's an air of excitement around the Hokies. The hires of Whit Babcock and Buzz Williams have energized a fan base that has been in a state of malaise due to the perception that Virginia Tech athletics were stagnant. With additional resources being devoted to recruiting staff, and a gorgeous, state of the art indoor practice facility on the way, the only thing that could derail forward momentum would be a mediocre football season.

To the casual observer, a blah year is certainly a possibility. The Hokies have major question marks at quarterback, running back, defensive line, and linebacker. While the candidates to fill those positions are talented, none have game experience.

Yesterday, Hokiesports.com released the initial spring football depth chart. There were few surprises. However, the depth chart hints at story lines to watch this spring.

2014 Spring Football Lookahead: Inside Linebackers

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.

2014 Spring Football Lookahead: Offensive Line

Despite winter's last ditch attempt to keep its bitter grip on the weather, spring football is just around the corner. Virginia Tech begins spring practice on March 27th, with the practice sessions culminating with the Maroon–White Game at 2:00 PM on Saturday, April 26th. In the weeks leading up to the game, I will take a short break from the Class of 2014 First Look series to preview position battles critical for any potential return to Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game. A successful season requires continued improvement on the offensive line. Coach Jeff Grimes left Blacksburg for LSU in the offseason, and Coach Stacy Searels has been hired build on the solid foundation that Grimes put in place.

Class of 2014 First Look: Holland Fisher

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."

Class of 2014 First Look: Isaiah Ford

As I discussed in my film review of Cam Phillips, a pressing need for the Virginia Tech offense was developing a true split end that can beat man coverage and stretch the field vertically. The Hokies passing game was better than expected last season, but the lack of a deep threat allowed opposing defenses to play their safeties in inverted coverage, often coming forward immediately at the snap without needing to worry about providing deep help to corners in man coverage. This had two effects. First, defenses had safeties flying into the box to stop the run just after the snap. This allowed defenses to play seven men in the box, and bring a safety late from angles that the offensive line and tight ends could not identify prior to the snap. Second, it meant that the safeties could help the linebackers and nickel corners on the crossing routes and misdirection routes that Coach Loeffler had the most success with throughout the year.

Evaluating Quarterback Transfer Michael Brewer

The transition from the Logan Thomas era has been a roller coaster ride, with many twists and turns, and those aboard don't know how it'll end. Tech's quarterback derby, already consisting of redshirt senior Mark Leal, redshirt sophomore Brenden Motley, three 2014 signees, Andrew Ford, Chris Durkin, and Travon McMillian, will feature another new face.

Where does Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer fit into Virginia Tech's quarterback competition? Even though he's transferring, Brewer will graduate in May, making him immediately eligible to play in the fall with two years of eligibility remaining. Loeffler's comments regarding Leal's preparation and performance in the Sun Bowl did not leave me feeling warm and fuzzy. Each of the three freshmen challengers have terrific upside, but it is rare that a true freshman can step in and effectively lead an offense against BCS competition.

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