Bud Foster's defense is a different animal. Unlike the classic 4-3 that relies on the ability of a defender to read a play, defeat blocks, and pursue, Foster's system is defense played like offense. On every defensive snap, defenders fit into assigned areas in a manner that drives the ball carrier into the arms of an unblocked defender. This attacking scheme benefits smart players who have a skillset that allows them to execute the proper assignment. With a mantra of "trust your technique" echoing in their ears, the best Hokie defensive players are the ones who have the athleticism to make plays coupled with trust in the technique they have been taught by the coaching staff.
At 6-1, 190 pounds, safety Adonis Williamson from Arsenal Tech High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, is a player who "fits" (pun intended) the style of play Torrian Gray demands from the free safety position. Williamson was rated as a three-star recruit by 247Sports Composite. He doesn't have the size or speed that wows the recruiting services, yet he is an excellent fit for the free safety position in Blacksburg.
On every Virginia Tech defensive snap, Coach Foster has a player assigned as an edge defender and an alley player. The alley players are most often the rover on the boundary side and the free safety on the field side. The alley player makes either a "spill" or a "force" call to the edge defender. If the alley player makes a force call, the edge player stays wide and forces the runner to turn up inside. The alley player knows the edge player will force the runner inside and fills the inside alley accordingly. On a spill call, the edge player crashes inside which forces the runner to bounce outside. The alley player goes outside and is there waiting for the runner. The system allows the alley players to cover less space, meaning they are in better position to make a tackle. However, it also means that if either the edge player OR the alley player has a communication error, the offense will likely have a big play because one or the other will be out of position. Also, this system places a huge premium on the alley player being an effective one-on-one tackler. As we saw in recent outings against Pitt and Boston College, if that alley player can't put the running back on the ground, nobody else is available in support to prevent a big play.
It is impossible to evaluate Williamson's communication skills on film, but the very first thing that stands out on his highlight tape is his ability to fill his alley, square to the ball carrier, and put the ball carrier on the ground. He has a knack for avoiding blockers without vacating his space, and he is an excellent tackler. Let's look at Williamson in similar situations that he would face in run support at Virginia Tech.
First, his defensive end gets sealed inside on an outside zone. This becomes a defacto spill play, with Williamson making a tackle on the outside without any additional help.
Much like the Hokie alley players, Williamson is isolated. If he doesn't make the tackle, there isn't much help to prevent a long run. He slips off a block and makes a sure tackle.
Next, we have Williamson playing a force technique. The defensive end plays wide to force the back to cut inside. Williamson again is isolated with no deep help. Williamson beats the fullback lead block and makes a sure tackle. This is a really nice play.
While Williamson is not huge, he plays a physical game. His tackles are sure and leave ballcarriers in some pain.
Williamson moves similarly to Detrick Bonner. He doesn't have elite speed, so much like Bonner he isn't well suited to be a sideline-to-sideline, middle of the field free safety in a man free situation. Unlike Bonner, Williamson is a much better form tackler. As long as Williamson is in situations where he has alley responsibility for half the field (which is usually the case in most of Foster's defensive looks), he will be excellent in run support. Williamson will also need to grow into the safety position in order to handle the physical play around the line of scrimmage without losing his speed.
As I've noted in some past columns, Foster also likes to recruit players with corner experience to move inside to safety. This allows Foster the ability to run base defensive sets without losing the ability for any defensive back to play man coverage on a receiver. Watching film, Williamson doesn't wow you with his athleticism, but he plays his assigned techniques very well, and those techniques are also highlighted in Tech's coverage scheme.
On this play, Williamson is playing an outside leverage cover 3. This means he is responsible for any deep throw outside the hash marks to his side. He plays outside the receiver, angled in so he can see the quarterback. If the receiver cuts inside, Williamson is in position to read the quarterback's eyes and jump the route, and worst case he has the deep middle safety to help him if he gets beat. Williamson's positioning also leaves very little room for an outside release.
On this play, Williamson reads the quarterback's eyes. When he sees that the quarterback is locked in on the seam route, he abandons his zone and undercuts for the interception. I'd be willing to bet the quarterback never saw him coming.
When I watch this, I flash back to Roc Carmichael's interception against Tennessee in the 2009 Peach Bowl.
Williamson plays the correct technique. He trusts his instincts within the scheme, and he has enough athleticism to close and make a play on the ball carrier. His fundamentals, technique, and instinct make up for any lack in top end speed.
When I watch Williamson's film, it seems to me that he has terrific attention to detail, is a fast learner, and is very coachable. He looks like a player who is easy to trust. That goes a long way for safeties. Foster's safeties are entrusted with so much communication responsibility while being under pressure to cover effectively and be a dependable tackler in the running game. No position in the Hokies defense has such diverse responsibility. Foster and Gray have a bevy of young, talented, and unproven players competing for snaps at both free safety and rover. Williamson doesn't have the benefit of spring football, and is at an added disadvantage of playing at a position where most of the more experienced players have already used a redshirt year. As result, I think Williamson probably gets redshirted this year. Don't take that as a sign that he won't be a contributor. I fully expect Williamson to be one of those players who is not highly recruited that turns into a major contributor at Virginia Tech because of his ability to execute the system. Hokie Nation has seen many of those players excel, while more talented players struggle to adapt to the system. Expect big things from this kid in the future.