Friday, December 23, 2011

Sugar Bowl Preview: Virginia Tech Defensive Front Seven

Guest poster Ryan provides his fourth Virginia Tech Hokies position group review.

Previously: Offensive backfield; Receiving corps; Offensive Line.

Virginia Tech Front Seven
Led by one of the best defensive minds in the nation in Bud Foster, Virginia Tech’s “Lunch Pail Squad” ranks second in the ACC in scoring defense and total defense and are third in the conference in rushing defense. They also rank third in opponent’s first downs and first in opponent third down conversion percentage. The defense is even stingier in the redzone, ranking first in the ACC in redzone percentage and third in opponents’ touchdowns allowed. Considering that three of the five Hokies that were lost for the season were defensive starters in the front seven, while many other key players suffered some sort of injury over the course of the season, you start to really appreciate and respect Foster, who is almost as legendary as Frank Beamer in Blacksburg.
Foster runs what he calls an “attack defense,” which is a variation of the 4-3 designed to stop the run and pressure the quarterback. Foster’s defense is fast, athletic, relentless, and extremely aggressive. Most of the attacking comes from the front seven with linemen controlling the line of scrimmage and getting penetration, allowing for blitzing linebackers to fill up the gaps and make plays in the backfield. The defense leads the ACC in total sacks with 38 and will look to continually be in the face of Denard Robinson throughout the game.
Defensive tackles - DT Derrick Hopkins #98; Luther Maddy #92; Corey Marshall #96; Isaiah Hamlette #93
One of the big questions coming into the season for the Hokies was defensive line depth and it has been tested all season long. The Hokies lost redshirt senior Kwamaine Battle (a backup) in the preseason and starter redshirt junior Antoine Hopkins in the first Clemson game, both to torn knee ligaments. Discounting Hopkins’s stats, the line has tallied 213 total tackles and 22.5 of the team's 38 sacks in 13 games.
The Hokies’ playmaker at defensive tackle is Antoine Hopkins’s younger brother, sophomore Derrick Hopkins. Listed at 6-0, 301 pounds, Hopkins has been a force up the middle all season, recording 50 total tackles with five TFL and three sacks along with 12 quarterback hurries. Those stats would be much higher if Antoine was healthy because he consumed many blockers, allowing for Derrick to get many one-on-one match-ups which he almost always won. But even with opponents’ interior lines focusing on Derrick, he still ends up in the backfield on many plays with good technique and strength.

Also due to Antoine’s injury, the Hokies have rotated a number of defensive tackles next to Derrick for the past 8 games. 6-1, 283 lbs. true freshman Luther Maddy has gotten the start in six of those contests and has seen his snaps increase each week (with the exception of the Georgia Tech game. where he did not play in favor of a different look along the line, which will be explained in a moment). 6-1, 253 lbs. fellow true freshman Corey Marshall and 6-5, 291 lbs. redshirt junior Isaiah Hamlette also see action at the spot. Between them, the rotation has totaled 36 tackles and four sacks.
Defensive end – DE James Gayle #99; J.R. Collins #42; Tyrel Wilson #66
Coming into the season, All-ACC second team defensive end James Gayle was expected to be the breakout star of the Hokies defensive considering his vast improvement in his conditioning (he won the team’s Excalibur award, the highest honor a player can earn from their strength and conditioning staff) and his performance in spring camp (he was the team’s defensive MVP). The 6-4, 257 lbs. redshirt sophomore leads the team with seven sacks and has recorded 11.5 TFL, good for second on the team. With a high motor, athleticism and strength, Gayle probably would have had stronger numbers if he was not slowed by an ankle injury he suffered against Miami, which forced him to miss the Wake Forest game and limited him versus Boston College.
Starting opposite of Gayle is fellow redshirt sophomore J.R. Collins. Though he is more undersized than Gayle at 6-2, 240 lbs., Collins is in the backfield more than his counterpart leading the team with 20 quarterback hurries and ranking second on the team with six sacks. Collins often sees himself in one-on-one matchups against the opponent’s left tackle because of the attention Derrick Hopkins commands and he uses his quickness and extension to collapse the pocket and zero in on the quarterback.

Because of Denard Robinson’s running ability, Foster could implement what he did against Georgia Tech by moving Collins to defensive tackle and substituting Tyrel Wilson in his spot. Wilson is perhaps the smallest defensive end one will see in FBS, standing at 6-1 and weighing only 220lbs. With that said, Foster likes the redshirt sophomore’s added speed and agility at the position and feels he is a weapon in containing speedy quarterbacks. On the season, Wilson has 29 total tackles with 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss.
Linebackers – Tariq Edwards #24; Jack Tyler #58; Kyle Fuller #17
Like the Hokies’ defensive line, their linebacker corps has been decimated by injuries. They lost both their starting whip Jeron Gouveia-Winslow in the Miami game and starting mike Bruce Taylor in the Boston College game for the season due to Lisfranc foot sprains. Also like the defensive line, the group has adjusted, adapted and has avoided a huge drop-off in production.
Starting at the backer (aka SAM or strong-side linebacker) position is redshirt sophomore Tariq Edwards. The 6-2, 231 lbs. Edwards is third on the team in both total tackles with 63 and tackles for loss with 9.5. He also has 2.5 sacks, two interceptions, six pass breakups and deflections and five quarterback hurries. In essence, he does it all from the position. He can play up on the line of scrimmage in the run game or he can drop back in pass coverage and run with the running backs or tight ends.
Replacing Bruce Taylor at the mike (aka middle linebacker) position is former walk on Jack Tyler. At 6-0, 230 lbs., the redshirt sophomore got the nod over redshirt senior Barquell Rivers because he possessed more lateral movement than Rivers who suffered a devastating quadriceps tear during offseason conditioning before the 2010 season. Foster has raved about Tyler for his ability in the running game but is still susceptible in the passing game. For the season, Tyler has compiled 35 total tackles, two for loss, with a sack.

Initially replacing Jeron Gouveia-Winslow at the whip (aka weak-side linebacker) position was redshirt junior Alonzo Tweedy. However, he suffered a high-ankle sprain against Boston College. Tweedy was replaced by Kyle Fuller, who started the season as the team’s starting cornerback opposite of Jayron Hosley. As a result, the Hokies run an altered version of a nickel defense, something they used quite often over the course of the 2010 season. Though the 6-0, 187 lbs. sophomore is technically out of position, he sure has not played that way. Fuller is third on the team with 64 total tackles and leads the team with 14.5 tackles for loss including 4.5 sacks. He also has 13 pass break-ups and deflections along with five quarterback hurries. Besides having cornerback speed at a linebacker position, the main reason why Foster put Fuller in this position was due to his comfort playing in space and his insane open-field tackling. Fuller often lines up outside of J.R. Collins or in front of the slot receiver on the strong side, so he plays like a linebacker in running situations and a cornerback in passing and spread looks.
After Christmas, we will look at the Hokies’ secondary and their specialists minus place kicker Cody Journell.

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