What’s Wrong with the Virginia Tech Defense?

Unlike Past Seasons, Virginia Tech’s Defense Has Frequently Found Itself Out of Place in 2012

Returning Starters

If you read any of the preseason articles about Virginia Tech‘s 2012 football team, there was one thing that was stated over and over – the Hokies were returning almost everyone on defense, so it was conventional wisdom that the Hokie D should be even better than last year. That was a very seductive argument, which unfortunately ignores some basic facts.

For example, one writer pointed out that nine of the 11 starters were returning, which was technically true. However, when you look at the 2012 defense vs. 2011 position-by-position, you see a slightly different picture

Now you can see the rest of the story – while those 9 players may have returned, only 5 players started the season at the same position.

Another thing you have to look at it who did not return.

  • Tariq Edwards – still on the team, but underwent surgery to alleviate pain associated with a stress fracture in his shin during the offseason; he missed first three games and may not be 100-percent recovered even now.
  • Jayron Hosley – a star on last year’s defense, Hosley came out early, and is now a New York Giant in the NFL.
  • Eddie Whitley – provided senior leadership last year, and is now a Dallas Cowboy in the NFL.

The loss of Hosley in particular was a real blow to this defense, since his presence in the defensive backfield allowed the team to do some things in the front seven to compensate (honestly) for a lack of size in the defensive line.

Fall Training Camp

In my personal opinion, another thing which put the VaTech D behind on the  learning curve was the fact that the Hokies’ first game was against Georgia Tech. Since the Yellow Jackets run a triple-option offense, and since the winner of the “Battle of the Techs” has won the ACC Coastal division every year until now, it would be understandable if the team spent a disproportionate amount of practice time on stopping GT’s. Whatever the case, the Hokies did, in fact, do an excellent job defending the Yellow Jackets — it was probably the team’s best defensive effort of the season. The down side, of course, is the fact that preparing for Georgia Tech does not help much against any other team on the schedule.

Bud Foster’s Play-Calling

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think Bud Foster’s defensive play-calling has been horrible at times. For example, against Cincinnati, in the third quarter, the Bearcats had the ball on 2nd and 11 deep in their own territory.  Va Tech had stopped the run all day, including a 1-yard loss on 1st down. Now, in an obvious passing situation, the Hokies lined up with 8 men in the box. The ESPNU announcers even commented on how Virginia Tech was “crowding the box.” What happened next? Cincinnati QB Munchie Legaux (gotta’ love that name, by the way!) threw a 10-yard pass to Ralph Abernathy, who then ran the rest of the way for a 76-yard touchdown! Looking back at the video, it appears that the Hokies were attempting to cover Abernathy out of the backfield with a defensive tackle.  On 3rd and 1 on the VT end of the field, I could understand the need to be aggressive, but on 2nd and 11 this call made no sens.

Sadly, that was not the last bad defensive call of the game. Despite the earlier defensive breakdown, the Va Tech offense had regained the lead. So with only 20 seconds to play the Hokies lined up to play defense once again. It was 3rd and 10 (thanks to two incomplete passes) on the VaTech 39-yard line. A field goal would not help the Bearcats, who trailed by four points. All the Hokies had to do was prevent a 39-yard TD for three more plays and they would win the game. So, what did Bud Foster call — cover 2 or maybe a cover 3 prevent? Nope. Foster called a cover 1 with a spy on the Cincinnati QB, just in case he decided to run.

Before we go any further, let that sink in.  Up by 4 points with 20 seconds to play and 39 yards of grass to defend, would you be worried about the QB running the ball? On the contrary, wouldn’t you want the other team to run the ball (assuming you can tackle them in the field of play)? Realistically there was only one way for Cincinnati to win that game…

So, with five men in the box (only four of whom actually rushed the QB), the Hokies played man-to-man on all five Bearcat receivers and only kept one safety back to help. I’m not sure what happened to that safety, but I can tell you that when the Cincinnati receiver caught the ball as he was crossing the goal-line, the VaTech defender covering him was all alone. He didn’t do a bad job of man-to-man coverage actually, but that’s not the point.  He should have had deep help, and he didn’t. That is the fault of the coach in this case, because of the defense that was called.

Discipline

Breakdowns in discipline have also contributed to the Hokies defensive woes this season.  For example, against North Carolina, the Hokies had RB Giovani Bernard bottled up in the first quarter until the Tar Heels’ fourth possession, when he broke off a nine-yard run. The thing is, the play before that the Hokies were penalized five yards on 4th and 5, which gave the ball back to UNC. The nine-yard running play should never have happened! This may not seem like a big deal, but VaTech is not Alabama; for the most part, the Hokies do not physically dominate people on defense. They succeed on that side of the ball by playing fast, smart, and disciplined. So breakdowns in discipline — dumb plays — hurt the Hokies more than it would a team like Alabama or LSU.

Adjustments

I saw a graph of yardage given up by Virginia Tech this season. It was split into rushing and passing yards. What it showed was an excellent performance against GaTech, a not-so-good performance against Pittsburgh (but still balanced), then  things start go haywire. Against Cincinnati, the Hokies stopped the run cold but were burned with the pass; against UNC they stopped the pass but were gashed by the run. It appears that maybe the team overcompensated for their lack of pass defense against the Bearcats, which hurt the rush defense against the Tar Heels.

Lack of Size

If you look at all scholarship players on the VT defensive roster, the average weight of those who play in the front-seven is 241 lbs.  By contrast, the Alabama front-seven average weight is 261 lbs. Florida State and Clemson average 260 and 261, respectively. So the Hokies are light up front, which makes it a challenge to stop opposing rushing attacks without committing an extra defender. That, in turn, leaves the defense vulnerable to the pass. My solution would be to recruit larger DTs to shore up the middle of the line.

BOTTOM LINE

To me, the problem with the Hokies defense is not one, glaring weakness, but the sum of several problems.

Some of those problems are related to players — I would like to see the Hokies get bigger in the interior of the defensive line, for example. But most of the problems, in my mind, should be laid at the feet of the coaching staff. If the problem that can be fixed immediately — coaching — isn’t addressed soon, the team could be in for a disastrous remainder of the year.

Read more from Hokie Mark over at ACCFootballRx, where he gives his prescription for fixing what ails the ACC on the gridiron.

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