I've often been amazed at how Bud Foster and Charley Wiles take defensive linemen that may not have elite-NFL caliber talent and turn them into incredibly productive college players. At the same time, I often lamented at the thought of how a premier talent would be elevated in a system which consistently puts players into positions to make plays. Since I started watching Virginia Tech football in 1990, only a handful of Hokie defensive linemen have made a successful transition to become defensive line starters in the NFL. Standouts like Cornell Brown and Jason Worilds moved to linebacker. Darryl Tapp was a productive depth player, and tweeners like Corey Moore and Jim Davis struggled to find a role. Defensive tackles have had even less success in the NFL. Jonathan Lewis was able to hang around the NFL for a handful of seasons but didn't start a game, while David Pugh only had one start for the Indianapolis Colts. Many Hokie fans search for explanations for this, but the root cause is pretty simple. The NFL defensive tackle spot demands players that have the ability to account for two gaps up front, and the Hokies have rarely been able to land those kinds of physically dominant defensive linemen. In lieu of getting those two-gap linemen, Coach Foster and the defensive staff have been able to identify specific players that execute in a slanting and stunting one gap defensive system. That system often takes kids who are good fits, can execute their responsibilities, have terrific twitch and motors and make them very productive football players.
At 6-3, 315 pounds, Under Armor All-American Tim Settle breaks the mold for a typical Hokie defensive tackle. Settle is a potential game-changer for this defensive staff. His skillset is a combination of the twitch, quickness and ability to fit gaps laterally from his original alignment just like some of the most productive Hokie defensive tackles in recent memory. He has a big, dominant frame that can eat up multiple gaps on the interior of a defense. I don't say this lightly, but I believe Settle is the most talented defensive tackle that the Hokies have landed since Bruce Smith. Settle is one of two recruits (the other being Adonis Alexander) that I had an opportunity to watch play in person, and his package of skills are absolutely perfect fits for an NFL future. He has a massive frame with a huge wingspan, but he plays with a low center of gravity and great pad level. He is huge, but he doesn't just overwhelm blockers. He does a fantastic job of getting his hands on blockers and extending to keep them off of his body, and he has great leverage moves to get into the backfield when a defensive call requires penetration instead of gap integrity. His feet are light and quick. As a younger player, he often showed off an incredible spin move, made even more impressive by his size. Settle also played both nose tackle and defensive end in Stonewall Jackson's 3-4 defensive scheme, so Bud Foster can feel comfortable with his ability to play a 1-, 3-, or 5-technique in his base, Bear, and 30 fronts.
On his highlight film, there are several plays where opponents try to cut block him, and he steps right over the block like he is stepping over a piece of rope laying on the ground. He moves laterally to make plays, and slides effortlessly off double teams. This play isn't the most dynamic that you see on his highlights, but it makes my heart flutter. The offense runs a wedge play where they double Settle and kick out the edge defender with a running back. Settle tries a swim move at the snap, which puts his pad level high. This is a bad spot for a defensive tackle facing a double team.
Despite facing a double team into his exposed chest, Settle's feet track the ball carrier perfectly. He slides outside the down block of the tight end and then recovers to squeeze back to the inside behind the two players that tried to block him! The poor running back ends up with Settle's facemask in the solar plexus for a one-yard loss.
On his high school film, Settle doesn't fall into the trap of fighting with the blocker and then beating him. He gets rid of blocks quickly or beats the blocker to the spot and makes the play. Here is a play where he is at defensive end, and the opponent pulls a guard to kick him out.
In high school, a typical defensive end would be taught to squeeze the play, which means he would step towards the pulling guard leading with his left (inside) shoulder to make the hole smaller. Settle uses proper technique, but when the back commits, he beats the pulling lineman to the spot and makes the play. That takes special talent and a knack for reading the play. Similarly, his film has other subtle plays that demonstrate tremendous football instinct. Several times, you see him in a defensive call where he has a contain responsibility and can't recklessly crash to the football. He pursues the play and makes an impact, especially with his knack for getting his hands on passes while he is being blocked.
On other plays, he is pursuing away from the ball and forcing fumbles or putting the KO on unfortunate ball carriers.
Sometimes I watch talented prospects in drills and then they go on the field and they just are not as productive as expected. Settle was productive in every facet up front. He wasn't just making tackles in the backfield, he was forcing fumbles or making those huge stops in critical down and distance situations. He blocked a punt. When teams ran away from his side of the field, he pursued plays from the back side. The kid has amazing ability. At his best, Settle could be the kind of player that can take away two gaps in the middle of Bud's defensive front. Eliminating a gap responsibility could free up an extra defender (most likely the mike linebacker) to play the alley. Against spread teams, imagine how effective the 30 front look could be with a nose tackle who takes away everything from guard to guard by himself. That means more bodies in coverage or available to blitz off the edge. Settle's versatility offers Foster more flexibility, and that can be a game changer.
Any worry about Settle starts and ends with his conditioning. Settle played both ways for Stonewall Jackson, and when I saw him live his level of play dropped off significantly after a couple of series. He rose to the occasion at big moments, but he was definitely taking plays off (especially on offense) to get his wind back. After his senior season concluded, he reported for the Under Armour All Star Game looking much heavier. 247Sports updated Settle's weight to 361lbs. The extra weight certainly seemed to impact Settle's level of play. He took a limited number of snaps during the Under Armour game and wasn't a dominating factor. He still had a great first step off the line of scrimmage and did a fantastic job of getting his hands into the blocker first. He just didn't have that second step to exploit the advantage.
On this play, Settle is aligned at right defensive tackle for his first series in the game. The opposing team runs an inside zone to his side. The center doesn't chip on Settle, leaving him one-on-one against the guard.
Settle is playing a two-gap technique, meaning he has responsibility for both the center-guard gap and the guard-tackle gap on his side. He gets tremendous initial extension into the guard and stands him up, leaving the running back nowhere to go. At this critical moment, Settle doesn't seem to have the next step to shed the block and make the play. Settle's feet are active, but he stays square to the blocker. The blocker's feet recover and he gets Settle going backwards (this looks like a pancake but it appears Settle gets tripped from behind). Settle does his job; by holding up the back from making a decisive cut he allowed the other defenders to make the tackle. However, with his talent, you want Settle to be a playmaker, not a space-occupier, especially in Bud Foster's one-gap defense.
The Hokies have more depth at defensive tackle than any other position on defense. Settle would need to make a major impact starting day one of training camp in order to break into an established top five (Maddy, Marshall, Williams, Walker, Baron) that Bud Foster trusts. That being said, Tim Settle has the talent to make an immediate impact. This offseason is critical for him to improve his strength and conditioning, learn the defensive system and be ready to dominate rather than learn when he reports to camp. If he needs some time to improve his conditioning and learn the system, Hokie Nation will likely have to wait through a redshirt season before Settle has an opportunity to start wrecking ACC centers.