Back in the early glory days of Bud Foster's tenure as Hokies defensive coordinator, there was one nuance which drove me crazy: against spread passing formations, Foster wouldn't use extra defensive backs to replace linebackers or defensive linemen. Older Hokie fans probably vividly remember whip linebacker Ben Taylor and rover Nick Sorensen trying to cover Ron Dugans on FSU's game winning TD in the BCS Championship Game. Even beloved Hokie whip Cody Grimm struggled in man coverage to the point that it seemed opponents abandoned attacking Virginia Tech's corners.
Foster did slowly adapt as college football offenses featured more spread formations and passing. I first noticed the transition after Tech was decimated by Aaron Rodgers, Larry Fitzgerald, and a host of other passing attacks in the midst of a 2-5 finish in 2003. Foster started to use his rover linebacker in more of a traditional strong safety role. After injuries depleted the whip position in 2010, Foster started to use a nickel look with Kyle Fuller playing slot receivers against spread, and then moving into a traditional whip alignment against pro formations. Finally, over the last few seasons Foster has incorporated a 3-3 stack defense, where he pulls a defensive tackle from his nickel package and replaces him with a whip linebacker.
In all my years watching Virginia Tech football, I do not recall Bud Foster utilizing six defensive backs (known as a "dime" defense), even against 5 wide receiver sets. If Foster did utilize a dime look, it was in prevent situations and wasn't a core component of a game plan. When the Hokies played East Carolina earlier this season (with Brandon Facyson in the lineup), Foster used the nickel and a bear fronts against the Pirates in order to generate pressure on Shane Carden. With Gunner Kiel demonstrating inaccuracy against pressure, I fully expected Bud to use a similar game plan and bring heat on Kiel. Instead, Foster debuted and used a dime look heavily.
The Dime and the Importance of Leverage
It wouldn't be a Bud Foster defense without a unique twist, and Foster's version of the dime is no different. Instead of the NFL-style four-man defensive front with a middle linebacker spying on the quarterback, Foster used three down linemen (a nose tackle and two ends) and kept both of his middle linebackers on the field. The defensive ends most often rushed hard to the outside, while the nose tackle and both linebackers jammed up the gaps from guard to guard. While six defensive backs dropped into coverage, five players were rushing (or trying to contain) Gunner Kiel most of the time.
The other variation was the selection of the sixth defensive back. In some situations, Greg Stroman played a boundary corner or shadowed receivers who ran some form of jet sweep motion. When Stroman was not on the field, Foster replaced him with backup rover Anthony Shegog. Shegog played more of a traditional rover alignment, close to the line of scrimmage and covered the short flat to the boundary.
The dime look had mixed results. For most of the first half, Kiel faced very little pressure, and if you had told me before the game Kiel would have the kind of time he had on most throws, I would have expected the Bearcats to put up some serious numbers. The Hokies front only sacked Kiel one time in the first half, and Dadi Nicolas was able to force a scramble an incompletion on a key third down play. Otherwise, Kiel was comfortable in the pocket until Deon Clarke ended his day with a well-timed blitz in the third quarter. Let's take a look at how coverage threw Kiel out of his game.
The Bearcats hit a big play on the opening drive of the game, and then followed it up with a touchdown on the second drive. After the touchdown drive, Kiel made a couple of errant throws and had a bit of a frustrated look. When I watched the film, I noticed that the Hokies were showing man to man but playing a variety of coverages. Kiel appeared to expect receivers to be open in places where he was actually making the worst possible throw.
The most successful looks that Bud Foster threw at Kiel were leverage zones. Playing leverage is a coverage technique in which a defender overplays half of a wide receiver's pass route options. When playing inside leverage, the defender aligns inside his man, angling towards the sidelines, and while it looks like man-to-man, his real assignment is to prevent any receiver from running an inside breaking pass route (cross, slant or post). Outside leverage is essentially the opposite, and the defender takes away any outside breaking routes (corner, out, curl or post-corner).
In the dime package, the Hokies had three able pass defenders on both the boundary and the field side, and through alignment and correct leverage, the defense was able to take away most of the Bearcat route combinations. Here is a terrific example from the second quarter. The Hokies defense faces a third-down-and-goal situation from the six, and the Bearcats offense starting to play in sync. Focus on the top of the screen. Foster has three defenders (Kendall Fuller on the slot, Kyshoen Jarrett behind him and slightly outside, and Greg Stroman lined up near the sideline. Note each player's body position at the snap of the football. Fuller almost has his back to the quarterback and is inside of the slot. Jarrett is deeper, but also has his back to the quarterback. Stroman bails out from his alignment quickly, but he is angled inside, almost looking at the quarterback. Why?
To the quarterback, this looks like man coverage, but it is really a zone. Almost every route combination that could be run into the end zone is effectively covered as long as each defender plays their responsibility correctly. In this case, the slot receiver runs to the flat, and the outside receiver runs a deep crossing route. When the receiver cuts to the inside in front of Stroman (No. 3), he runs right into Jarrett (No. 34). Fuller (No. 11) has the receiver in the flat, but if the slot wheels deep, he runs right into Stroman who would be in perfect position to intercept the pass (similar to Donovan Riley's interception against Florida State in 2012). As result, Kiel has nowhere to go.
Let's suppose the Bearcats run a different route combination. If the slot receiver runs a corner route while the wide receiver runs a slant, cross, or post, Stroman would have the corner route, Jarrett would have any vertical route coming inside (post or slant) while Fuller would jump the crossing route. Again, the quarterback doesn't have a wide open option, and can only make a play by throwing into a tight space with three defenders and trusting that his receiver can out talent the coverage. It can happen (Exhibit A- Calvin "Megatron" Johnson), but with most college receivers and quarterbacks, the play will result in an incompletion, coverage sack or big mistake. Kiel threw the ball away in the vicinity of the crossing route and took the field goal.
Leverage coverage technique makes things easy on a defender because he only has to take away half of the opponent's route options, instead of needing to read and react. As I mentioned before, another benefit is it looks like man coverage to the quarterback, so all sight adjustments and hot routes are based on the mindset that the defense is playing man. Foster ups the ante because regardless of the position listed on the roster, any of his secondary players could play either leverage technique and play both short and deep zones. This play is a terrific example from the first quarter.
The Bearcats go to a five receiver set, with three receivers to the field and two to the boundary. To the boundary, the wide receiver runs a crossing route, while the slot receiver fakes a screen and turns up field on a wheel route. To the field, the two interior receivers run flag (out routes) at slightly different levels, while the widest receiver runs a go route.
On both sides, the six dime defensive backs form a triangle using leverage to cover all areas of a zone. On the bottom of the screen, both short Hokie defenders play inside leverage (because they don't have inside deep safety help) to force a throw to the sideline. Note, Detrick Bonner (No. 8) is playing a tighter coverage assignment on the slot receiver. Meanwhile, Riley (No. 2) backpedals into a cover 2 deep zone, but he is playing outside leverage. This allows Riley to play well off the receiver and eyeball the quarterback on quick deep fade routes.
On the boundary, the Hokies play similar coverage. Stroman (No. 3) is aligned on the slot receiver and is playing inside leverage. Kendall Fuller (No. 11) is aligned on the outside receiver and is also playing inside leverage. Nearly 20 yards deep, Kyshoen Jarrett (No. 34) is playing inside leverage from his safety spot. When the slot receiver turns up field, Jarrett has the deep half responsibility to protect Stroman deep (allowing Stroman to aggressively attack any screen) while trusting Fuller (the best coverage man) to stay with any receiver that crosses to the middle of the field.
Up front, the Hokies rush only three down linemen. Deon Clarke (No. 40) appears to be spying on Kiel, and Chase Williams (No. 36) seems to get lost dropping into an underneath zone. Still, Kiel has plenty of time. So, let's look at his options.
To the boundary, Stroman has taken away a quick throw to the flat, and any deep floating throw on the wheel route could be fodder for a Jarrett interception. To the field side, both flag routes are relatively open, but long throws to the field side on out routes are prime opportunities for pick sixes, especially when they are the quarterback's third or fourth progression. The go route to the field side may be the best option. Riley shouldn't let the receiver get behind him, and he was beaten by Moore on the game's first touchdown, but Kiel has Riley directly in his line of vision and Kiel knows pressure could be coming. So instead, Kiel throws the crossing route against one of the best cover corners in the country. In essence, Foster has forced Kiel to throw into a small window against his best cover man. Bud wins.
Deon Clarke and Coverage
While the dime defense forced Kiel to hesitate and often make bad decisions, Foster's bear nickel look (featuring Deon Clarke as a stand-up edge defender and Jarrett taking his place at linebacker) and traditional nickel look forced all three Cincinnati turnovers. Deon Clarke thrived in both alignments. A fake corner blitz from Fuller gave Clarke a lane to knock Kiel out of the game. Clarke also lead the Hokies with 11 total tackles, but perhaps his most impressive feat was his impersonation of a Torrian Gray defensive back in a leverage zone.
Let's re-watch Kendall Fuller's interception. The Bearcats use a running formation with an H-Back staying in to protect. The boundary receiver runs a post-corner route, faking a post route and then turning back outside to the corner of the end zone. The two receivers to the field side run crossing routes. Now, let's examine the leverage the Hokie defenders use.
To the field side, Chuck Clark (No. 19) and Bonner are playing inside leverage against the Bearcats crossing routes. Donovan Riley is playing outside leverage deep. To the boundary, Foster sends Jarrett on a blitz, so Deon Clarke drops into an inside leverage zone on the lone Cincinnati receiver. This undercuts any quick slant or post route. Fuller plays outside leverage. If the quarterback throws the post, Fuller can see the throw and break on it, but no matter what he can't let anything beat him deep and to the outside. Kiel is also looking at the boundary receiver the entire way because he read man coverage at the line of scrimmage. In the NFL, the QB and receiver may have made a sight adjustment as the receiver flattens his route to attack the goal post, but the Bearcats receiver (No. 3) dutifully breaks back to the corner. Fuller is there waiting for the ball. He may not get an easier interception in his college career.
This happened because: 1) Kiel was rushed into throwing to his first progression because he knew the Hokies were bringing six. 2) Fuller trusted Clarke to bracket the slant and post route properly, leaving him to play his own responsibility. 3) Kiel's second receiver in the progression was bracketed by Clarke and Bonner after Clarke's initial responsibility broke back to the corner. 4) Kiel was not patient enough to look at Chuck Clark's man, who was the only player truly facing single coverage on the play. Again, Foster has baited Kiel into taking a chance against Foster's best cover corner rather than attacking a weaker pass defender. This is brilliant design by Foster and Gray and beautiful execution by Clarke and Fuller.
As you can see here, Clarke doesn't get many chances to play coverage, but he has the tools to help surprise quarterbacks in the passing game. On this play, the Bearcats release a running back to the flat and try to pick Clarke, who is aligned as a stand-up defensive end in the Bear front.
Clarke likely hears Fuller call out the pick, avoids the pick, and then runs stride for stride with the BearcatS running back down the sideline. I don't think Kiel thought Clarke had any chance of staying with the back on this play. After seeing Pitt torch Bruce Taylor on a similar play back in 2012, watching Clarke shut down these routes while excelling as a disruptive blitzer warms this old Hokies fan's heart.
What Does the Military Bowl mean for Bud Foster's Defense in 2015?
Long time readers know that I don't put much stock into bowl games, but the final impression of a season has a major impact on how the fanbase perceives the state of the program. For me it is difficult to determine how mentally prepared either team is to play after the long layoff, so winning or losing the game doesn't mean much. Instead, I like to try and evaluate how the coaching staff uses the extra game and practice time to prepare new players for the coming season.
Next season, Foster's defense loses three veteran players who have been critical in communication and leadership roles in 2014. Chase Williams had an excellent 2014, but while he was sidelined it was clear that Andrew Motuapuaka has tremendous upside when he slides into the mike linebacker role next year. However, Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett took almost every meaningful snap over the last three years from their safety spots. Foster has often discussed how important Jarrett and Bonner have been in leading a very young cornerback group the last two seasons. Minus a short stretch, Jarrett has been outstanding around the line of scrimmage, and despite his shortcomings in run support, Detrick Bonner has been one of the better Hokie cover safeties. They will be tough to replace.
Given the extra practice time, Greg Stroman and Anthony Shegog both made cases to get a chance to find a role in the secondary next season. Stroman got lost several times against some wonky motion, but he looked effortless tracking receivers in man coverage and may give Foster some flexibility to move Chuck Clark back to a safety spot. Shegog played more like an old-school Hokie rover, aligning near the line of scrimmage, but outside of the defensive end similar to the whip's normal alignment. Shegog was beaten once on an out route, but he was responsible in run support and didn't get picked on in coverage. Beyond Shegog and Stroman, C.J. Reavis (who I think can be a real weapon with his ability to both cover and provide run support at the free safety position) continued to be an ace on special teams, and Der'Woun Greene looked gentrified as the Hokies new kick-off returner. Holland Fisher was one of the top recruits in the country may factor in at the rover position, and Mook Reynolds is coming to Blacksburg with an opportunity to contribute immediately. With Kendall Fuller coming off a spectacular bowl game, Chuck Clark's improvement throughout 2014, and a returning Brandon Facyson, Bud Foster and Torrian Gray have built a secondary chalk full of talented players. Foster's defense is slowly transitioning to the point where almost every man on the field in the secondary could potentially be a deep safety, press corner or an edge blitzing dynamo. The quarterback never knows where the heat is coming from, and that usually spells disaster for Hokie opponents.
Despite recruiting laments by Hokie Nation, when you look at the 2015 roster and compare it to 2012, you really have to credit the defensive coaches and recruiting staff on how much depth has been built. 2012's depth was tenuous at best, in present day the talent of the reserve players is significantly better. Ricky Walker seems to have supplanted Woody Baron as the next man in the defensive tackle rotation. Andrew Motuapuaka performed well when Williams went down. Four-star caliber talents like Vinny Mihota and Raymon Minor will have four full years after spending a season redshirting. When you watched the Hokies punt and kick coverage teams (who were outstanding all year), the improvement can directly be attributed to the influx of young, fast, talented defensive players. Guys like Ronny Vandyke, Jamieon Moss, Melvin Keihn and C.J. Reavis all contributed well on special teams. With the lack of depth at defensive end the one major question mark, the rest of Bud Foster's defense looks primed to have a fantastic 2015.