One of the fascinating things about watching college football in real time is the number of misconceptions that turn into conclusions. With the benefit of hindsight from the film review every Sunday, I gain a certain degree of insight about how the Hokie offense and defense performed that I otherwise would not have.
Most fascinating, perhaps, is analyzing Bud Foster's defensive concepts each week. While the basic tenants remain the same, he seems to constantly adjust alignments and concepts to fit the ability of his personnel, especially in the secondary. I expected his game plan to be very vanilla against Western Carolina, which would serve as an opportunity to evaluate personnel and give young players an opportunity to face spread concepts in a live game setting. Foster delivered a vanilla game plan from the standpoint of blitzes, however, his plan to stop the spread incorporated using nickel personnel in 7- and 8-man fronts via the base 4-4 and the 46 alignments. From these alignments, two facts presented themselves. First, Bud Foster has an incredible amount of trust in Kyle Fuller. Fuller played on the boundary in single coverage without any deep safety help on his half of the field for long stretches during the game. Second, and perhaps most importantly, every offensive coordinator has film of four of the top five Hokie defensive backs (Kyle, Kendall, Jarrett, and Bonner) lined up as a nickel slot defender, a cover corner, a deep safety, and as a blitzing outside linebacker.
For most of the first half, the Hokies used nickel personnel, with Brandon Facyson as the field corner and Kendall Fuller playing in the slot. But unlike the normal Hokies nickel look, Detrick Bonner, Facyson, and Fuller positioned themselves in a variety of "triangle" alignments. Sometimes Fuller would play between the two field-side receivers up close to the line, with Bonner aligned head up on the slot deep, and Facyson aligned deep on the wide man. Sometimes Fuller would line up deep on the slot, with Facyson wide, and Bonner up close to the line in the middle. And sometimes both Facyson and Fuller would line up pressed on each receiver and Bonner would align deep behind them.
Meanwhile, back on the inside, the Hokies have seven players inside the box, with two inside linebackers and Kyshoen Jarrett lined up as an outside linebacker to the boundary. In this alignment, there are seven defenders to account for the running back and the quarterback in the power and read option game, but there is not any kind of safety help on the entire boundary side of the field.
From this base nickel, Kyle Fuller and Kyshoen Jarrett played man or an inverted cover-2, where the rover has outside force responsibility, and then drops back into an underneath zone to the boundary. Kyle has a deep third. On the field side, Bonner and the two freshman corners ran a variety of zones. From this alignment, Facyson usually played a very conservative deep third to the outside. Bonner and Fuller changed up their keys, but one always played a man on the slot receiver, and the other almost always played a short zone. If a running play came to the field side, the defender in the short zone had force responsibility back to the inside. On occasion, Facyson and either Bonner or Fuller would be in man coverage, and the other inside player would have force responsibility. This created confusion for Catamount quarterback Eddie Sullivan on the opening drive of the game.
On first down, Western Carolina runs a basic veer option to the field side.
On this play, Bonner is aligned seven yards off the slot receiver to his inside shoulder. Kendall is only five yards off the slot receiver on his outside shoulder. Facyson is playing twelve yards off the wide receiver. At the snap, Bonner picks up man coverage on the slot, and Facyson is playing man on the wide guy. Kendall angles in from his wide alignment, coming in as wide run support at the snap.
On the next play, the Hokies use the same alignment, except Jarrett moves up to the outside linebacker spot late. Facyson and Fuller combine to play a cover-2 look, with Fuller in the short zone and Facyson to the inside. Bonner again plays man on the slot receivers. Jarrett, Edwards, and Tyler all drop into underneath zones, and Sullivan tries to force a go route against a corner playing as a deep safety.
Collins gets some pressure on the pass rush, and Sullivan throws a lollipop into the lap of Facyson for an easy interception.
The second pick was a similar coverage look. This time, Western Carolina used trips to the field side. With only a tight end to the boundary, Jarrett drops into coverage while Kyle Fuller blitzes from the edge, getting a piece of Sullivan as he throws. To the field, the Hokies have Bonner playing a deep middle zone, with Facyson as a deep third on the outside. Kendall Fuller jumps up initially to react to the screen, but then follows the quarterback's eyes to the football.
Fuller makes a spectacular play to deflect the ball to Bonner, but Facyson has jumped the route and is in front of the receiver. If Kendall does not deflect it, Facyson may have the pick-six instead of Bonner. The variability of this alignment is outstanding. At different points, Jarrett dropped deep and Kyle Fuller blitzed from the boundary. On the field side, Fuller and Bonner both played force responsibility and jumped back and forth between combinations of man and zone coverage, and Facyson is allowed to play soft and ballhawk. The one weakness of this alignment is that it limits the ability of the inside linebackers to blitz through the interior gaps. Both Edwards and Tyler, once recognizing pass, must drop into that soft area in the middle of the defense to protect against seam routes from the backs or a tight end. Western Carolina chose not to test them, but I imagine that other spread teams will try to get a tight end into that space against either Hokie inside linebacker.
Stopping the read option from the Nickel: The 46
As discussed several weeks ago, the 46 defense is another Hokies eight-man front, an alternative to the 4-4. Made famous by Buddy Ryan and the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 46 alignment moves Tariq Edwards head up over the tight end, and Jarrett as rover to a middle linebacker alignment. With the whip to the weak side, it gives Virginia Tech six men on the line of scrimmage and two linebackers, with a bigger linebacker on the edge to play outside force. This look is effective if your backer and whip are productive blitzers against the pass, and the bigger backer is more difficult to kick out against power plays to the strong side.
Western Carolina had some success in the first half using a veer option from the pistol to the field side against the Hokies, with the quarterback keeper giving the Hokies problems. Rather than bring whip linebacker Josh Trimble back into the lineup, Foster utilized a 46 look, this time with nickel personnel.
Foster's 46 look is the ultimate in high risk. The Hokies have 8 men in the box, with a defensive back aligned as a whip linebacker, the rover aligned as a second inside linebacker, and the backer lined up on the edge opposite the whip. Here is an example of the alignment against Western Carolina.
As you can see, Kendall Fuller is aligned as a whip and Jarrett is playing up as a linebacker. Bonner and Fuller also flip flopped with Bonner aligning on the edge and Fuller covering the slot. This leaves Kyle Fuller alone covering a deep third to the boundary. To the field side, Bonner and Facyson can either play straight man coverage, or each take a deep third. If they play thirds and the receivers cross, then they take the player who enters their zone. Underneath, Kendall and Edwards have force responsibility on the edge, and then if they identify pass each drops into a short zone. Jarrett and Tyler have underneath zones in the middle. Again, there is no help if Kyle, Facyson, or Bonner are beaten deep, so they must play conservatively against comeback routes and screens.
Kyle Fuller gave up a couple of quick button hook passes in front of him, but for the most part, Western Carolina didn't cope with the pressure of the 46 front. The alignment highlights Bonner's and Kendall Fuller's ability to both play run support and cover quick slot receivers in man coverage.
Let's examine some of the different variations of the 46 that Foster utilized. As I stated before, Foster seemed to use the 46 when WCU started to get some momentum with the read option. Mostly, it was effective. Here, the Catamounts show a read option look with a little wham block from the tight end aligned over Edwards.
Edwards steps up to force the play, recognizes that the quarterback does not have the football, and crashes inside to assist with the dive. The back has nowhere to go. The challenge here is to Edwards. He is on an island with the quarterback. If the quarterback keeps and can beat him to the edge, he has no help until Fuller releases his coverage once the quarterback passes the line of scrimmage.
Western Carolina attempted to alleviate pressure by challenging the field side by running a bubble screen.
Facyson allows himself to get cut blocked, but Bonner (playing in the slot in press alignment) shadows the slot receiver as he goes to block Facyson, and then steps up to force the screen back to the inside. Western Carolina's wideout hears footsteps, and drops the football.
Foster has always been a coach who has a reputation for sticking with basic principles. However, he constantly creates variations in alignment and assignments to create confusion against offenses. When he coached against Clemson in 2011, Foster played a very conservative defense focused on reading and reacting to their single-wing style spread. Last season, Foster used a double free safety alignment, with Michael Cole playing deep, Bonner on the slot, and Jarrett playing inside the box. It was more successful, but still allowed Clemson some ability to create seams for the running game. Now, Foster has shown Chad Morris and other ACC offensive coordinators a pure 46 pressure front, as well as a variety of combination nickel looks where each player can effectively force the run, blitz off the edge, or cover in man or zone, without tipping the coverage based on alignment. Just getting this on film will create all kinds of headaches for Hokie opponents this season.
One thing that Foster did not do much in this game is call a variety of blitzes. On occasion, his whip, backer, and boundary corner came off the edge, but there were only a limited number of stunts more complicated than something ran in training camp. Foster used this game to test his defensive backs in man coverage, and counted on his veteran line and inside linebackers to control the game. The Hokies looked dominant, as expected, but occasionally had some trouble with quarterback keepers on the read option. Tackling wasn't particularly sharp in stretches as well. East Carolina does not feature the read option as much, but Marshall has an quarterback who can run, so expect Foster to shore that up this week.
Up front, Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy again turned in stalwart performances. J.R. Collins forced the first interception, but it seemed as if Dadi Nicolas got more repetitions this week. Nicolas had a couple of spectacular QB pressures, but had some trouble disengaging from blocks against the running game. James Gayle had some pressure, but did not register a sack. I thought Gayle was excellent in run defense, but after watching him destroy the Hokies in August scrimmages, I'm eagerly awaiting the explosive edge rush and sack.
Charley Wiles was able to play three groups of defensive linemen. Tyrell Wilson sat out, so Dewayne Alford got an opportunity and played well in his stead. Nigel Williams and Woody Baron again didn't lose their gap fits while getting work every third series. Kris Harley, Alston Smith, and Matt Roth got work in garbage time, but it was Ken Ekanem who made two nice defensive plays late to force a WCU punt near their own goal line.
At linebacker, we know what to expect from Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards. Tyler was outstanding in run support and made a terrific effort play when Sullivan escaped his grasp and Tyler chased him all the way to the sideline to finish him off. Tariq Edwards defended two passes in man coverage and didn't give up a completion. He was moving well. Chase Williams really stood out. He looked quick as he made two nice tackles in run support, and nearly returned a kick for a touchdown.
I can't express how tickled I am with the performance, so far, of all five defenders in the secondary. Depth is still a serious question mark, but both Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson look like veterans right now and stars in the making. Jarrett continues to be great in run support, and Foster put him in some coverage situations and he was not beaten. Bonner really has blossomed working with the two freshmen. His communication is on point, as Fuller and Facyson only busted one coverage all day (a wheel route against a cover-2 look in the 1st quarter). Bonner is reading the play wonderfully too. He nabbed his second pick helping over the top after the receiver got past Kyle Fuller with a double move. It appears that Chuck Clark has passed Desmond Frye as the No. 2 rover, so Donovan Riley, Clark, and Der'Woun Greene will be next up until Antone Exum returns.