As I have frequently noted, Bud Foster will often change alignment and personnel, but Virginia Tech's defensive concepts, however, consistently remain the same. Foster relies on gap control to funnel runners to specific areas where a designed free hitter/alley player is unblocked to make a tackle in a confined space. For the Hokies' scheme to work, the defensive players inside have to properly fit gaps, while the players on the edge must communicate and then execute force or spill calls that direct the alley player where to find the runner. When the scheme is working properly, the alley player will be alone in the hole with the ball carrier. When the force/spill call is not executed properly between the alley player and edge defender, or when a gap fit is not properly maintained, the runner will usually get a long gain.
When 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, and two receivers) was the prevalent base offensive grouping, Foster was the master of using eight-man fronts to slant and stunt to change up who the free hitter was on any given snap. However, the advent of spread offenses and evolution of the read option forced Foster to adapt. Tech's defense produced mixed results over the last couple seasons. Arkansas presented a golden opportunity for a throwback Foster gameplan. The Hogs featured 21 personnel for much of the game, and quarterback Austin Allen wasn't a read option run threat. Foster responded with an eight-man front, and his defense defended the run beautifully.
On this play, Arkansas has two tight ends to the right side and they pitch to Devwah Whaley (No. 21). The right side of the offensive line blocks down, and right guard Johnny Gibson (No. 62) pulls to kick out the corner. The Hokies stack the box with eight defenders and Terrell Edmunds is aligned on the line of scrimmage as an outside linebacker.
Tech's defensive line steps to their gap based on the offensive line's initial step. Gibson pulls to his right, so Nigel Williams steps the same way. RT Brian Wallace (No. 60) blocks to the inside, so Ken Ekanem fits to the inside gap. Terrell Edmunds crashes hard to the inside to occupy the tight end and Adonis Alexander forces on the edge.
Terrell Edmunds' spill jams up the interior, while Alexander's force draws the attention of two blockers. An alley forms between the two and that is where the alley player knows where to fill. Tremaine Edmunds takes two decisive slides to his left, and then steps right into the hole to crush Whaley. At the beginning of this season, Tremaine was much more indecisive. Over the course of 2016, his play has matured and he trusts the scheme and knows where to be. He always had the range and athleticism to finish the play when he gets there. This is textbook backer play.
Behind Tremaine, Chuck Clark identifies the seam from his safety spot and comes in right behind Edmunds. With this design, Tremaine could run into some traffic coming from the edge defender potentially driven into his path when they spill. Clark is the designated free hitter, so even if Tremaine does get impeded, Clark is unblocked to make the tackle. Here is a similar play in the second half. This time Mook Reynolds spills the ball, and Motuapuaka comes clean, but he doesn't quite have the same speed and range that Tremaine does. Clark arrives and makes a highlight reel tackle on Whaley.
Before the game I noted how the Hokies could have success against power runs by having the back-side defensive tackle trail a pulling guard. Following Jerod Evans' fumble to open the game, Nigel Williams was kind enough to exploit such a weakness.
Prior to the snap, the Hokies shift into a bear front. Based on Virginia Tech's alignment, center Frank Ragnow (No. 72) should block back on Williams in the B-gap abandoned by the pulling Gibson. Instead, he blocks play-side (likely because the late shift resulted in Woody Baron aligned as the nose tackle in his line of vision). Williams follows Gibson to the football and puts Kody Walker on the ground for a three-yard loss. Tech ended up holding the Hogs to a field goal and minimizing the damage of the turnover.
Virginia Tech Fails to Robber
While Virginia Tech's defense excelled against the run, Arkansas decimated the Hokies with its intermediate passing game. Arkansas passed regularly from run-heavy formations. It was obvious Foster emphasized very sound gap play by the defensive line, and as a result Tech's defensive ends were not getting up the field and generating pass rush when Arkansas threw from heavy looks in early down and distance scenarios. Behind them, the Hokies' secondary struggled in man-to-man coverage. Austin Allen had time and made easy throws to open receivers who shook loose from man coverage.
Foster attempted to mix things up by showing man, and then occasionally throwing a robber look into the fold. In the first half, the timing was just a bit off to pay dividends.
On this play, the Hokies' defensive call finds Chuck Clark playing a corner inside leverage technique against slot receiver Drew Morgan (No. 80). Brandon Facyson and Terrell Edmunds are the two free hitters in the alignment, with Facyson acting as the robber once he reads pass. Facyson's job is to follow Allen's eyes and undercut a crossing or post route against Clark. Morgan runs the deep post.
Arkansas freezes Facyson with play-action. Clark plays just a bit too deep, which allows Morgan to cut to the post with enough depth that Allen can clear Facyson coming late to undercut the throw. The lack of pressure also allows Allen to set up and put the ball on the money.
Hokies Change the Angles to Create Pressure
Foster's stack the box strategy worked against the run in the first half. Unfortunately, the Hokies couldn't stop Arkansas' air attack. Foster had to make an adjustment to both his scheme and personnel groupings to try and get some pressure on Austin Allen.
Despite a solid performance in the first half, Foster replaced Anthony Shegog in the base defense with Mook Reynolds. Shegog continued to play as the bandit in the dime defense and made three huge plays. Meanwhile, Foster started to blitz Reynolds from the whip position even on running downs. Suddenly, the Hokies were getting pressure on Allen when Arkansas attempted to pass on running downs without losing the ability to stop the run. When the Hogs then faced third-and-long situations, Foster could use more zone blitzes with robbers to pressure Allen into throwing interceptions.
Against this inside zone, the Hokies slant hard to the left and bring Reynolds off the edge from the field. Both inside linebackers play in a passive stance, looking to drop underneath play-action instead of aggressively fitting a gap. The defensive linemen, instead of sitting in their gaps, are aggressively getting up the field, and Ekanem drops off into the flat like an outside linebacker
Despite shakier gap integrity, the Hokies slant generates penetration to mess up Arkansas' blocking scheme, especially by right defensive end Trevon Hill. Hill draws the back-side seal block and forces the runner to angle right into Reynolds' blitz path. Reynolds makes the sure one-on-one tackle. If Allen had passed, Hill and Reynolds would have been close enough to create pressure. The combination of blitzing Reynolds off the edge and slanting would pay off later in the game.
On this play, the Hokies execute almost the exact same zone blitz concept. The defensive line slants away from Reynolds, who blitzes from his whip alignment. This time, Motuapuaka and Edmunds both read pass and drop underneath the hot routes.
Motuapuaka and Edmunds prevent Allen from making the quick throw, and the rest of the secondary holds up in man coverage. Allen pulls the ball down to reset and Reynolds is able to wrap him down to the ground. This is a great effort by Reynolds and quick recognition by Motuapuaka and Edmunds to keep Allen from going to his hot read. This blitz worked several times, including Reynolds' second sack.
For the rest of the second half, Foster called variations of his base defense, this whip blitz away from the slant with the linebackers playing soft, and the occasional corner blitz. The corner blitz design was masterful and took full advantage of all the attention Allen gave to Reynolds.
On Tremaine Edmunds' interception, Foster called a corner blitz. Reynolds comes off the edge and Allen boots away from him, right into a blitzing Brandon Facyson from the boundary.
Foster can rest easy with this blitz call because he trusts Terrell Edmunds to rotate from his rover spot to cover Keon Hatcher (who torched the Hokies for much of the first half) man-to-man.
Allen boots out right into Facyson's pressure. Instead of hitting Morgan on the crossing route from the field, Allen panics and tries to force the ball to TE Austin Cantrell (No. 44). Coming off a block on Ken Ekanem, Cantrell wasn't expecting the ball, and it bounced right into the waiting arms of Tremaine Edmunds for an interception. Again, each component — the d-line's slant, the corner blitz, and the linebackers waiting on the leak out — coupled together produce a turnover.
The Edmunds brothers played stellar football throughout the whole game, especially in the base looks in which Tremaine struggled last season. On this play, Terrell spills the ball to Tremaine, who fights through pulling All-American LT Dan Skipper (No. 70).
Terrell gets off Morgan's crack-back block to make the tackle. Tremaine sheds his block and keeps his outside shoulder free for proper leverage to get the assist. In my estimation, if Bud Foster could pull a clip to demonstrate exactly how a backer and rover should play against an outside zone, this play would be right up there. The development of the Edmunds brothers over the last ten games has been spectacular.
Virginia Tech Executes the Robber
None of these pressures would work if the Hokies didn't cover better in the second half. Virginia Tech was much stronger in man coverage early in the third quarter, especially on run downs where they had struggled in the first half. Once Arkansas was in third-and-long, Foster would replace a down lineman with Shegog. Shegog responded by forcing a fumble, and he also cashed in with a beautiful interception when he robbed a robber-ing Terrell Edmunds.
Unlike the first half, the robber concept was sharply executed in the second half. Edmunds would have easily secured Shegog's interception had he not picked it. Terrell also baited Allen into another interception to seal Tech's Belk Bowl win.
Arkansas has a third-and-17 and trails by four points late in the game. Allen tries to complete a vertical route to Morgan from the slot.
Reynolds presses Morgan. His technique is eerily similar to an overly-aggressive press that Alexander attempted against the slot receiver earlier in the game. Alexander didn't get enough of a chuck and lost his balance. Terrell Edmunds is deep, and Allen completes the pass to Keon Hatcher (No. 4) in the seam for a 19-yard gain.
At the time, it seemed incredibly strange that Alexander would be pressing so aggressively on an obvious passing down and against a passing formation (five wide receivers with a non-running threat at quarterback). I thought perhaps Alexander busted the call. Then, when I watched the film, I thought he may have funneled Hatcher to Terrell Edmunds and Terrell was out of position.
Now back to the fourth quarter play. Reynolds presses Morgan, and he beats Reynolds' aggressive chuck to the outside and runs down the seam. Reynolds, much like Alexander's more awkward attempt earlier, appears beaten.
Allen makes the same read, except this time Terrell Edmunds is in robber and jumps underneath the route. Edmunds picks off the pass with ease. Now, Foster would never tell, but I would love to know if Alexander's over exuberant chuck attempt in the first half was perhaps setting up Allen for a big mistake later in the game. It looks remarkably similar. Wink, wink.
Against Arkansas, Tech's defense delivered their best game against the run all season. Players that will be counted on to be major contributors in 2017, particularly Ricky Walker, Trevon Hill, Tim Settle, and Houshun Gaines, all delivered very strong performances. Meanwhile, the Edmunds brothers shined as Tech's dynamic playmakers of the future. Foster will have a huge challenge replacing Chuck Clark in the secondary, and Virginia Tech's defensive line depth needs to be reestablished. How well the Hokies reload at those aforementioned positions will likely determine the ceiling for Virginia Tech's defense this season.