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January 11, 2011

Tech defense looking for improvement after up-and-down 2010 season

By: Jimmy Robertson

Days before the Hokies took to the field for the Orange Bowl, defensive coordinator Bud Foster revealed to the media at a press conference that Stanford’s running game worried him.

It turned out to be more than simple coach-speak. It turned out to be prophetic.

Tech’s 2010 defense will be remembered for playing impressively in phases this season. The Hokies intercepted 23 passes, ranking tied for second nationally in that category. They shut out BC, held the Tar Heels at bay, squelched Miami in the second half and gave up just a lone touchdown against rival Virginia.

But the flip side of 2010 is this – the Hokies gave up too many big plays, too many yards, especially on the ground, and too many points. The Orange Bowl was somewhat a microcosm of the Hokies’ season, as Stanford racked up 534 yards of offense (247 on the ground), which stands as the most ever allowed by Tech in a bowl game.

It was right there and then we had a couple of long plays against our defense and it got away from us a little bit,” Tech coach Frank Beamer lamented. “We had them backed up, and if you feel like you could hold them, then you could get right back in it. But then they got two scores and it got away from us a little bit.”

The two scores came within a three-minute span in the third quarter. Stanford would go on to score on its first four possessions of the second half to run away with things in a 40-12 victory.

Once the final stats were tabulated for the 2010 campaign, the Hokies allowed 361.5 yards per game. Nine opponents scored more than 20 points against Tech, the most since 2000. The Hokies gave up more than 200 yards rushing in four games this season.

It’s not as if Foster and the rest of Tech’s staff didn’t foresee a rebuilding process. The Hokies entered 2010 with a young defense, especially after Jason Worilds surprisingly declared for the NFL Draft last year, robbing the Hokies of their top playmaker on the defensive front, and after Barquell Rivers tore his quadriceps tendon in a winter workout. Rivers, who started 13 games at mike linebacker a year ago, did not make his season debut until the Orange Bowl. Thus, Tech’s defense featured seven new starters this season.

As a result, the unit struggled to mesh despite Foster’s expertise. His linebackers were up and down, and the defensive line labored to get pressure. The Hokies faced several pass-happy, spread offenses early, which forced Foster to play a lot of nickel coverage – which meant freshman Kyle Fuller and redshirt freshman Antone Exum got a lot of time, but were forced to learn on the run.

“Throughout the season, when we really went sour, we weren’t communicating,” said Jack Tyler, who started the Orange Bowl at mike linebacker. “We weren’t running the scheme and it was just a lot of execution letdowns. It’s really just buying into the system. Coach Foster has been doing this a long time and he’s the best at what he does. So you need to listen to him and trust your teammates that they’re going to be in the right spots.”

“We need to work on the communication and get everyone on the same page,” cornerback Jayron Hosley agreed.

Experience figures to help that, and the good thing for the Hokies is that seven starters return heading into spring practice – eight, if one counts Rivers. Plus, Foster and his staff played a lot of people. Guys like Fuller, Exum, Tyler, Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, James Gayle, J.R. Collins and Derrick Hopkins figure to be much improved heading into spring practice.

“A lot of guys got a lot of reps and a lot of minutes this year,” safety Eddie Whitley said. “I’m expecting us to go into spring ball rolling, playing at a fast pace and getting it done.”

Preparations for the 2011 season start with winter workouts once the students return to Blacksburg for spring classes. Tech’s defenders need to get stronger and more physical, both at the point of attack and in coverage. Then, an interesting spring practice begins in late March or early April.

Foster knows his stuff. His units have finished in the top 10 in total defense on nine occasions, including first twice. He’ll be ready.

Will the players be ready? They should be. If nothing else, Stanford has provided the motivation.