Hokies Looking for Diamonds in the Rough at Defensive Tackle

16-play, 3,200-word film analysis of Virginia Tech defensive line signees Josh Fuga, Mario Kendricks, Norell Pollard, and Jaden Cunningham. Understand their immediate strengths, areas of improvement, and potential early contributors.

When Ricky Walker and Vinny Mihota exhausted their eligibility this past season, the last remnants from the recent great defensive lines exited Blacksburg. Walker, Tim Settle, and Woody Baron set a high standard of excellence at defensive tackle. For the Hokies' 2019 campaign, perhaps no position on the roster provides as much worry and uncertainty as defensive tackle.

"We're not very deep right now as we look on paper at defensive tackle this spring," said Bud Foster.

Justin Fuente expended a significant amount of roster space this recruiting cycle in an attempt to find compliments for Jarrod Hewitt and Robert Porcher, who showcased some playmaking ability, but little consistency in their first seasons as regular players.

Honestly, given the volume of scholarships allocated to defensive tackle this class, it feels more like trying to hit the lottery versus hitting a homerun. Unlike Baron, Settle, and Walker, Charley Wiles' big, five-man class of defensive tackles are all in some form or fashion projects. DaShawn Crawford, who I highlighted in my review of the early JUCO signees, has some really good quick twitch and the advantage of getting to participate in spring football. However, he, like Baron, is small and unfortunately doesn't have 5 years in Blacksburg to develop. The additional four defensive tackles the Hokies signed combined with Crawford all could be contributors. However, none are, in my mind, sure-fire productive players like I thought Walker, Settle, and Baron would be. Wiles will have to do some work to turn these recruits into an effective group quickly, or Virginia Tech will continue to cull the room and search for JUCOs and transfers to plug holes.

Fuga Brings a Big Motor for a Big Man

At 6-2, 303 pounds, Josh Fuga will be expected to be a future anchor at defensive tackle. The Freedom HS product was a late bloomer who initially committed to Temple. Throughout the 2018 season, the 247Sports Composite 3-star (0.8530) lived in the backfield of his Northern Virginia opposition.

"Right now, the Fuga kid, size wise would be the guy," Foster said of the incoming freshman defensive tackles. "Mario Kendricks would be another guy that potentially has the size that could come in. If they can learn things, and learn to play at a high level, and be physical at the point of attack. That's always the challenge. You get an 18-year-old kid, and even though he have size, all of a sudden he's going against a kid that's been in a weight program and a training table for about 3-4 years. There's a difference in their maturity level and the physicality and that type of thing."

Fuga played nose tackle in a 3-4 front which requires him to slant laterally and fit into gaps. Fuga has a quick first step and demonstrated good leverage technique when he attempts to penetrate. On this passing down, Fuga (No. 77, in the middle of that 3-man front) got off the ball quickly and executed a nice rip move.

Those light feet (quick short steps) and the violent execution of the rip move pop off. Freedom HS schemed a personal protector to aid the center. Fuga is a little off kilter as he clears the center which allows the personal protector to ride him out of the pass rush. However, the defense is designed to force the quarterback to roll left and throw into the zone. Fuga does his job and it results in an interception.

In the context of Virginia Tech's scheme, Fuga has the components needed to be effective in a system which requires defensive tackles to slant, fit, and then shed blocks. Fuga has a quick first step, moves well laterally without getting his weight over his toes, and his hands are quick and violent. Here it is in action.

He executes a rip move through a double team and drives into the quarterback.

Fuga's size and his home (Prince William County) might draw comparisons to Tim Settle. However, outside of a similar girth, it would provide difficult to find two more diametrically opposite types of football players. Settle was a spectacular talent. However, in high school he didn't have much endurance. After playing several snaps in a row, Settle's level of play dropped off. With Greg Stroman as his quarterback and lined up at OL, a gassed Settle would occasionally drop his hands and turn around to watch Stroman make defenders miss.

Fuga isn't as dynamic a playmaker as Settle. Fuga doesn't have the same level of balance to power through double teams and finish plays. For example, against this run, Fuga swims cleanly past the center. He just doesn't quite have enough agility to redirect and square up on the ball carrier.

However, Fuga was consistent with his assignments and got where he needed to be on every repetition despite playing every repetition on offense. By comparison, that was very unlike Settle in high school. Fuga was excellent at right guard on offense and at least was consistently gap sound even when he faced repeated double teams. It is really hard to determine how much upside Fuga has because he is playing every repetition on offense and defense at over 300 pounds. Despite all those snaps, Fuga didn't have a noticeable drop off in play and continued to be responsible. I would think with fewer repetitions he could be more dynamic.

Another issue for Fuga involves how he deals with contact. When a blocker or double team gets square on him, he has a tendency to plant his feet and brace against the impact.

Fuga shoots the A-gap to the left of the center. The dive is right of the center (Fuga's left) and the center gets pretty square on Fuga. Instead of keeping his feet moving and giving some ground to cross the center's face and attempt to make a play, Fuga plants his feet to prevent being pushed backwards from the block.

Once a defensive tackle stops his feet, it makes it incredibly difficult to shed a block or redirect to the ball carrier. In order to be more than a space-eater, Fuga will have to continue to work on his feet and stay moving at contact.

Fuga will also need to play with better pad level. When he attempts a leverage move (e.g. a wipe-hand swipe, rip, or swim), Fuga has a tendency to rise up and expose his chest. If Fuga doesn't win with his move, he presents a big target.

Freedom HS coach Doug Overton told The Key Play in December, "He's not going to be able to stand up versus guys at the next-level. I don't think that he can't do it, it's just he hasn't had to do it consistently because he's just physically been better than most people."

Overton also praised Fuga's intensity plus effort. The complete game film I watched supported his assertions. Fuga started slowly. As the game against Woodbridge progressed, he became more and more disruptive defensively while his level of play didn't drop off on offense.

Mario Kendricks Gets North and South

Mario Kendricks was the first 2019 defensive tackle prospect to commit to Virginia Tech. Most of the highlights HokieSports.com showcased of the 6-0, 275 pound Osceola HS (Kissimmee, FL) product showed him getting up the field and making plays against minimal blocking. When evaluating the 247Sports Composite 3-star's (0.8559) full highlight package, a different picture emerged. Kendricks is a very north-south player. At the snap, he doesn't move laterally particularly well. Similar to Mihota as a high school player, Kendricks is either shooting the gap or engaging the blocker directly in front of him.

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