When Bud Foster announced Mook Reynolds would be Virginia Tech's starting nickel defensive back, and the nickelback would be on the field the majority of defensive snaps, I was instantly intrigued. We all know the whip's role has diminished, due in no small part to the proliferation of spread offenses, but I was somewhat surprised to see the nickel become part of his base defense.
It's obvious what the benefits of the nickel are against the pass, but I wanted to see how Foster would be able to compensate for a smaller player when defending against the run. With games against Tennessee and Boston College during weeks two and three, respectively, Foster had an early opportunity to see if his new starting nickel, Mook Reynolds, would be able to hold up against power running attacks. Virginia Tech ranks No. 2 nationally in total defense, No. 1 against the pass, and No. 15 in ESPN defensive efficiency. Early returns indicate Foster has successfully schemed a way to hide a third corner against the run, and maximize Reynolds' coverage skills against the pass.
One of Foster's strengths as a defensive coordinator is his ability to make a scheme easy for his players to understand while making it look complex to opposing offenses. Foster knows that high tempo teams prey on defenses that are too complicated. His scheme has some basic rules for every position on the field which allows his players to line up quickly and communicate efficiently. The nickel is a replacement for the whip, therefore Reynolds is aligned to the wide side of the field. The field corner will align across from the outermost eligible receiver and Reynolds will align across from the inside "slot" receiver. When teams line up with a tight end to the field instead of a slot receiver, Reynolds will move closer to the edge of the line of scrimmage and look to provide run support.
These alignment rules have stayed true through every snap of the first three games. There are times when Foster will have Reynolds blitz off of the edge. When that happens, he will align himself normally and then creep in towards the line of scrimmage as the offense prepares to snap.
Mook Reynolds Against The Run
Foster has had to change his defensive scheme many times over the years to keep up with evolving offensive trends, and the move towards a full time nickel is another example of this evolution. While Foster's schemes may change on a season-by-season basis, his strategic goals remain the same. Foster wants to make offenses one-dimensional and predictable. He attempts to do this by taking away their run game. After he has placed teams in passing situations, he wants to find ways the to pressure the quarterback while also using a diverse coverage package to try and confuse a quarterback into making a mistake. This strategy has allowed Foster to field defenses which generate large numbers of sacks and turnovers.
Foster's golden rule is to stop the run. Any tactic he devises has to start with that premise and then he'll build everything else on that foundation. Staying true to this rule, Foster devised a sound scheme to hide the smaller Reynolds (6-0, 183) against runs in some instances, while also maximizing Reynolds' skill set (speed and aggressiveness) in others.
One way Foster has schemed around the nickel is to ask his safeties to become more involved in the box against the run. Foster can rely on Reynolds' strong coverage skills to cover for aggressive safeties, who in turn can use their greater size and strength to cover for Mook. The play below is a perfect example.
Reynolds is aligned in his normal position — to the field and across from the slot receiver. From this alignment Foster can play games with his defensive front while still maintaining sound coverage principles. On this play, Tech's in its Bear front. Notice the alignment of the safeties and the speed with which they commit to the run. Both safeties are within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and both attack downhill almost immediately at the snap. Mook's ability to match up with receivers one-on-one gives Foster the confidence to not give him safety support over the top. You can almost think of Mook as a de facto safety. If this play were a designed pass, one of those safeties would likely have man coverage responsibilities on the H-Back aligned to the field and the other would run a robber coverage to take away intermediate middle of the field routes.
There are times when Foster can't rely on safeties to do all of the heavy lifting against the run though. In order to keep his alignments simple for his players, he has to be willing to ask Mook to attack the run against certain formations. Reynolds has had success in these situations this year, due to his quickness, his agility, and above all his aggressiveness.
Here we see how Foster responds to an offense that doesn't put a slot receiver to the wide side of the field. Rather than move Reynolds over to the boundary, Foster stays true to his simple alignment rules and has Reynolds sink closer to the line of scrimmage. Mook is then asked to attack the run as soon as he reads it. Reynolds gets up the field and relies on his athleticism to evade, rather than strength to bully, the blocker. Mook forces the H-Back to grab him, drawing a holding flag that would have backed the offense up if not for Chuck Clark's forced fumble.
The play above is another instance of Reynolds being able to get around blockers in space and causing havoc in an opponent's backfield. Boston College OC Scot Loeffler overloads his formation with blockers to the field and Foster sends Mook on a kamikaze run blitz directly into the teeth of the run. Mook uses his quickness to get up the field before the pulling tackle gets a chance to seal the edge, leading to a tackle for loss.
Reynolds On The Perimeter
Modern college offenses rely on wide receiver screens and jet sweeps to complement their interior rushing attack by stretching defenses horizontally. Reynolds will be required to be strong on the perimeter as offensive coordinators try to exploit the presence of Foster's safeties in the box. Foster has to be happy that Reynolds has looked like a stud when asked to recognize, react, and defeat opponents' screens.
Foster has a simple strategy for defending wide receiver screens and sweeps to the field, use Reynolds to set the edge and funnel the play back towards his teammates' inside-out pursuit. As discussed before, Mook will already be aligned across from the slot receiver on a screen play. His responsibility is to recognize a screen, and attack the outside shoulder of the slot receiver trying to block him. This will force the runner up the field, into the backside pursuit of a safety. The likelihood of success is determined by how quickly and confidently Mook attacks the blocker.
Before the camera zooms in, we see Mook aligned over the slot receiver with Chuck Clark as the safety aligned to the field. A receiver motions from the boundary towards the field at the start of the play and receives a screen pass. You can see Mook get upfield quickly to set the edge and force the runner to cut into the alley. This allowed Clark to attack straight downhill. Mook does his job perfectly here, he doesn't try to do too much and make a selfish play. He stays in his lane, takes on the blocker, and relies on his teammate to be in position.
The same principles hold for an outside sweep as they do for a screen. Mook is still responsible for attacking the outside shoulder of the slot receiver, getting up field and forcing the play back towards the middle.
This is one of my favorite plays because it illustrates how unselfishly Foster's defenses play. Mook has his eyes in the backfield when Tennessee runs an inverted veer play. The back gets the handoff and starts running a sweep to the outside. Mook recognizes it, and instead of attacking the ball carrier and risking losing contain if he gets blocked, he turns and runs to get in position to set up his teammate. He knows that by bailing towards the sideline and engaging the blocker he's likely giving up a chance at a tackle, but he is trusting his teammates to fill the alley and make the stop. Ultimately the play results in a decent gain for the offense, but Reynolds' play helped prevent it from popping outside and going for more.
Foster isn't content to see Reynolds lazily engage blockers though. Foster wants him to react quickly and decisively enough to make big plays on the perimeter.
Above, Reynolds reacts to the screen in time to take a calculated risk that pays big dividends for Foster's defense. Mook cuts inside of the slot receiver's block on this play, breaking one of Foster's leverage rules. In the end, the confidence that Reynolds has in his ability to make plays results in a negative play for the offense.
Tennessee OC Mike DeBord had to have been confident that this play was going for a first down when he saw the Hokies' alignment. The safeties aren't in position to prevent the running back from catching the screen and getting up field, and the linebackers can't be expected to win the footrace to the edge against a faster athlete. Mook follows Foster's simple rules. He reads the screen play and gets upfield as quick as possible, all while attacking the outside shoulder of the blocker. Reynold's quickness and aggressiveness overwhelms the slot receiver and Mook ends up blowing up the play and preventing the conversion.
When Foster divulged the nickel/Reynolds would replace the whip in his base look, the were questions regarding the defense's ability to be stout against power rushing teams. Thus far, those concerns proved to be unfounded, and this could end up being one of the better rush defenses Foster fields in a while. Mook Reynolds' coverage skills allow Foster to get Chuck Clark and Terrell Edmunds involved in run plays, and Mook's eagerness to attack ball carriers on the perimeter reminds me of a young Kyle Fuller. Mook may not have the open field tackling skills that Fuller had (who does?), but his willingness to attack creates opportunities for big plays in the run game.
Mook Reynolds In Coverage
Now that I've gone over how Foster defends the run with a nickel on the field, this is why he bothered drawing up those plans in the first place. In my opinion, Virginia Tech has the most dynamic defensive backfield in the ACC. Having five defensive backs on the field who are all willing to attack ball carriers, and who are all capable of covering a team's best receiver, gives Bud Foster unprecedented amounts of flexibility. Foster then leverages that flexibility to keep opposing quarterbacks off balance by mixing in a wide variety of coverages and blitzes on passing downs.
I previously mentioned that Foster uses his safeties to provide run support in the box. This clip shows how Mook's coverage skills gives Foster the confidence to do so.
The play starts with both safeties within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and both primed to attack the run. Tennessee gives a play-action fake, and both Clark and Edmunds follow their keys and get downhill. Once they recognize it's a pass, we see them bail out to provide help on any intermediate middle of the field routes.
Mook is responsible for playing off-man coverage on the slot receiver. If the slot receiver runs a quick route to the middle of the field it's up to the linebackers or safeties to break up the play. If the slot receiver runs a vertical route, Mook is responsible for shutting it down. He tracks the receiver down the field and stays tight on his man without giving the referees a reason to throw a flag. This is exactly how Foster drew it up. He has eight men in the box, single coverage on the outside, and the offense still can't get a decent look because of Mook's exceptional coverage skills.
Foster also has the luxury of keeping his safeties back in passing situations. This makes things almost impossible for opposing coordinators, who have to find a way to get receivers open against tight man coverage and ball-hawking safeties.
On the clips above, Loeffler keeps seven men into block (perhaps incorrectly guessing a blitz was coming), and has three route runners. Foster runs a man/zone hybrid coverage scheme. His corners play tight coverage on the outside and he has Mook playing off-man coverage. The interesting bit comes with Terrell Edmunds playing a deep zone to the boundary and Clark playing a robber coverage to the field. BC QB Patrick Towles avoids the bait and doesn't throw the underneath route to the field, or the go route to the boundary, instead taking his chances with a shot downfield. Foster has called the perfect play and the offense has no choice but to roll the dice on a low percentage completion opportunity. Mook once again is in perfect position to defend the pass without getting close to pass interference.
Mook has the coverage skills and the mindset of a true corner even if he is aligned in the slot. When playing off-man coverage from the slot, Mook isn't content to just prevent the big play down the field, he wants to break on throws in front of him and try to make a big play. This should be a high percentage throw that the offense completes time and time again, but once again, Mook's aggressiveness and speed makes things difficult for the offense. Having a defensive back in the slot who prevents big plays but doesn't concede any easy plays to the offense is what gives Foster's defense the potential to be special.
Is The Nickelwhip The Future?
The evolution towards spread offenses occurred because of the creative ways offensive coordinators found to exploit the physical disadvantages "alley" defenders had against slot receivers. If a defensive coordinator wanted to keep a third linebacker on the field, he had to find a way to cover up the quickness deficit on the edge. If he choose to put a fifth defensive back on the field, he had to find a way to cover up the lack of size and aggressiveness of that defensive back. In my opinion, the main reason teams score more nowadays is that defensive coordinators have largely failed to answer the tactical question. Defensive coordinators seem more and more willing to play bend-don't-break defenses that rely on offensive turnovers and red zone inefficiency, than on actually applying pressure.
Soft defense has never been Bud Foster's mindset. He wants his defense force turnovers, he wants his defense to score, he wants his defense to change the game. In order to do that, Foster needed to come up with a way to get an athlete on the field that can cover slot receivers while also being stout against the run on the perimeter. Mook Reynolds is that athlete. His coverage skills give Foster the confidence to drop his safeties into the box. His experience as a corner also allows Foster to draw up exotic coverages that are difficult for quarterbacks to diagnose and dissect on the fly. It's not just his coverage skills that make Mook perfect as Virginia Tech's nickel, his fearlessness when attacking ball carriers on the perimeter is also key.
Bud Foster has said that his defensive group has a lot of potential this season and I agree. How well Mook Reynolds performs out of the slot will determine just how great the Hokies' defense can be.