After back-to-back performances where the Virginia Tech defense was physically dominated at the line of scrimmage, the Hokies' linebacker threesome of Rico Kearney (replaced an injured Rayshard Ashby), Dax Hollifield, and Divine Deablo (Whip) turned in a strong performance against a powerful Boston College front. Throughout Saturday's homecoming matchup, Kearney and Hollifield did a terrific job of staying clean when they served as free hitters. They physically attacked gaps and shedded blocks to make plays when they were not accounted for. Kearney finished with 18 total tackles, and Hollifield had 10. Deablo (14 tackles) — who rotated to whip linebacker (Khalil Ladler suspension) while Tyree Rodgers moved to free safety — was dynamic as a free hitter in space and physically setting the edge.
The defense of this split zone run provides a taste of the space-eating capability and physicality that Deablo brings to the whip position. Field-side DE Tyjuan Garbutt (No. 45) sets the table for Deablo (No. 17). Garbutt has force responsibility, meaning he has to contain the run and force running back AJ Dillon (No. 2) back to the inside. Garbutt gets off the football and bull rushes into Eagles left tackle No. 67 Aaron Monteiro. Once he has Monteiro neutralized, Garbutt uses a hard swim technique to gain the outside advantage on Monteiro. From this position, Garbutt has the angle to cut off any bounce wide, and if Monteiro tries to grab him, holding will likely be called.
Garbutt's force creates a bubble in between him and DT Vinny Mihota (No. 99). Mihota stands up a double-team despite clearly favoring his left leg. Deablo steps into the bubble unblocked and makes a clean tackle on Dillon. For Bud Foster's defense — this is a textbook play demonstrating how gap fits with a free hitter in the alley concept should work.
Garbutt, Kearney, Hollifield, and Deablo were the playmakers for Virginia Tech. On this power wham from a bunch formation, RG Chris Lindstrom (No. 75) pulls left to kick out the edge defender, while H-Back Korab Idrizi (No. 85) pulls and isolates inside. Garbutt disrupts the play by spilling hard to the inside. By doing so, Garbutt forces Lindstrom to adjust his path to Deablo on the edge. Idrizi and Dillon all collide with Garbutt in the hole as Idrizi attempts to kick Garbutt out.
Deablo does his part by attacking Lindstrom with proper technique to keep outside position. This prevents any kind of bounce to the outside. Kearney (No. 38), Tyree Rodgers (No. 18), Hollifield (No. 4), and Deablo all get shots at Dillon as he struggles for forward progress. Everyone is in the correct spot. Defenders are playing physical. Garbutt and Kearney are both beating blocks. This is a much more encouraging window into the future versus the tentative catching (absorbing blocks) demonstrated last week.
While the linebacker corps had the most dynamic performance, there were other glimpses of the type of physical engagement and playmaking that I lamented the lack of over the last three games. Garbutt was much quicker and more explosive executing force and spill calls. He executed them with enough speed and violence that several times it noticeably redirected the ball carrier. Fellow DE Nathan Proctor was physical at the point of attack. They probably should have received a few additional snaps. Cornerback Caleb Farley struggled as an alley defender earlier in the season (especially when the receiver opposite him slid inside to crack on a safety). Against the Eagles, he was in better position and made a couple of physical tackles.
However, Virginia Tech's veteran defenders had a much more uneven performance. Vinny Mihota, who appears to be playing on only one fully functional leg and seemingly would be playing fewer repetitions if any trusted healthy options were available, struggled to stand up to repeated double teams inside. Houshun Gaines took a very questionable running into the punter penalty to extend a drive, and looked physically outmatched on the inside.
However, it was veteran rover Reggie Floyd who garnered the most negative attention in my review. Throughout the game, Floyd appeared to be in position that didn't align with the force or spill action by the edge defender. That would indicate either: A) Floyd was not in the correct alley based on the call, or B) the correct call was not being received by the defender. As the most experienced player and "quarterback" on the boundary side of the defense, those things can't continue to happen, especially when Pitt and Miami both will deliver a heavy dose of zone runs into the boundary.
Early, those assignment issues didn't have a devastating impact on the Hokies. Check out this 2nd-and-8 outside zone. Gaines (No. 11, boundary DE) steps inside and is reached by the block of tight end Tommy Sweeney (No. 89). Boston College used this variation of the outside zone, and most of the times I noticed it, the Virginia Tech defensive ends did the exact same thing. They allowed themselves to be reached and tied up both blockers. The play side defensive tackle (on this play, Ricky Walker) would give a little ground and pursue to the sideline.
Functionally, this defensive line execution appears to be a variation of a spill call. Floyd (No. 21), as the free hitter to the boundary, should attack the line of scrimmage wide of Gaines. Instead, he sunk to the middle of the field. Rodgers, the free safety on the opposite side of the field, starts running towards the ball well before Floyd does.
The end result is close to a disaster. Despite a bobbled snap, Dillon is able to turn the corner. Floyd is sinking into the middle of the field while boundary CB JoVonn Quillen (No. 26) is stuck in man coverage on a receiver. Once Floyd does pursue, he takes a poor angle and runs into Sweeney who peeled off to the second-level. If Quillen was not able to get off of the receiver's block, Dillon would have likely headed to the end zone.
Compare that play to this similar design back to the field-side. Boston College used a pin and pull variation to get blockers out in front.
Idrizi (No. 85, field-side TE) pins DE Emmanuel Belmar (No. 40) inside. Deablo doesn't hesitate. He comes forward from his whip spot to force on the edge. Kearney scrapes across from the mike position to take on pulling center Jon Baker (No. 77). (Kearney preferably attacks Baker's left shoulder to force Dillon back into Hollifield. However, if an inexperienced player is going to make a mistake, at least it is aggressive and forceful.) Kearny shrugs off Baker's block and cuts down Dillon, with Hollifield, as the free hitter scraping across from his backer position, flying in to support. This is significantly improved linebacker play from the previous week, and it doesn't happen unless Deablo is setting the edge when and where he is supposed to.
Over and over, I found myself watching the film and asking myself "why is Floyd there?" He seemed to be out of position in several key spots. Against this inside zone read, Kearney made a spectacular solo tackle on Dillon.
Deablo is walked up wide at the line of scrimmage and takes quarterback Anthony Brown (No. 13) on the read play. With Deablo containing, Floyd should attack through the gap between Deablo and Kearney. Instead, Floyd is stationary and stacked immediately behind Kearney in the gap. The result was good. The execution was poor.
However, if Dillon could bounce to the outside against Kearney and get away, Floyd is flat footed and has no angle to trap him against the sideline. Ideally, Floyd approaches from the outside to the inside, within a couple yards of the line of scrimmage with his inside (right) shoulder at least a foot inside of Dillon's outside foot (right).
After near misses for almost three quarters, the Hokies were burned. Boston College was driving when Foster called a seven-man wave run blitz. Seven Virginia Tech defenders attack the line of scrimmage to form a wall, with only Floyd as deeper help.
This should be an atrocious run call against this defensive scheme. Every gap is accounted for, with Hollifield in contain position should Brown keep the football off a dive fake. Instead, Travis Levy (No. 23) runs for a 29-yard touchdown. To the boundary, Mihota has the A-gap. Belmar has the B-gap, and Hollifield has the edge with contain responsibility.
Despite the call, the defense doesn't execute. Mihota fits his gap. Deducing the design, Belmar should slant towards the center and jam up LT Aaron Monteiro (No. 67) along the way. Belmar stumbles as he swims wide, while Monteiro gets a free release to the inside. Finding nobody at the second-level, he turns inside to shield Mihota. Belmar takes himself out of the play without needing to be blocked.
That brings me to Floyd. With Hollifield containing, Floyd should not have a spill call. Yet, he widens out despite looking into the backfield and seeing Levy diving into the bubble in between Belmar and Mihota. I can't come up with any kind of reason why Floyd would widen out with the defensive front executing this run call. Then, Floyd can't react quickly enough to cut off Levy's Oregon Trail to the end zone. Even if Belmar shouldn't have crashed inside through the B-gap (and I think he should have), Floyd has to be there at the line of scrimmage in whichever gap Belmar doesn't fit into or this is going to go from a negligible run to a big play.
As I have written many times in this column: if the alley player is in the wrong place, this defense will get gashed. As a leader, a critical physical presence with a thick shoulder, and as an experienced player, the Hokies can't beat strong zone running teams unless Floyd is firing on all cylinders.