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April 7, 2011

BACK TO BASICS - The Hokies' defense again features a lot of youth, and coordinator Bud Foster is focused on a couple of spots

By: Jimmy Robertson

Antone Exum got a lot of playing time as a redshirt freshman, and he should be the starter at rover heading into the 2011 season.

Tech’s defense finished eighth in the ACC in total defense and fourth in scoring defense last season, so coordinator Bud Foster wants to see improvement, particularly at a couple of positions. He sat down to answer some questions about last fall and what he’s been looking at this spring.

Q: Let’s start with a difficult topic first – the Orange Bowl – before discussing spring practice. What happened on the defensive side of the ball in that game?

BF: “I’m just very disappointed. We broke more assignments and busted more coverages in one game than we did the last half of the season, which was disappointing to me. We gave up too many big plays, and they all were the result of poor technique or busted coverages. To me, it’s unacceptable.

“Now, they [Stanford] were a good football team. Don’t get me wrong. But all their long plays were poor run fits or busted coverages or poor technique. That’s the bottom line. Those are all things that can be corrected. The disappointing thing is all the things they did were things that we had practiced, and we were playing much better down the stretch.

“So I was disappointed. Actually, I was [ticked] off. I was on the sidelines during the game, and when I came back and watched the film, I was even more [ticked] off. Just to put it point blank.”

Q: Talk about your defense this spring and what you’re looking at specifically.

BF: “Well, let’s look back a little bit. Going into last fall, people were talking about us winning the ACC, and they were doing that as a compliment to our program. But if you look at the people we were replacing and the young kids we had on our defense, we were as green and young as we had been in a long, long time, and I think it showed in how we played.

“I’ll compliment our kids. They were resilient and played hard for 60 minutes, and it showed if you do that, then good things will happen. Did we play like I wanted us to? No. We gave up way too many big plays, and that’s the first thing we did this offseason was to look at those big plays because I wanted to see if it was the structure of the defense or personnel and technique. As it turned out, it was personnel and technique and fundamentals.

“We’ve got some positions that are playmaking spots where we didn’t have playmakers, and we’ve got to find some guys who will make plays at those spots. If that means we’ve got to play new people, then we’ll play new people because we’re going to get back to playing defense the way we’re accustomed to around here. I’m not talking about our fans. I’m talking about us. We went through a stretch run where we were playing such great defense, but you’re not going to do that every year. You’re going to have a point in time where you have injuries or personnel issues, and that came into it a bit last year. But I fully expect us to be a lot better, and it starts with this spring practice.”

Defensive end James Gayle had arguably the best offseason of any player, earning top honors in the strength and conditioning program. The staff expects big things from him going forward.

Q: What do you all need to do to get back to playing the dominant style of defense that Tech fans have seen from your units in the past?

BF: “We’ve got to get back to being more physical up front and stopping the run, and chasing the ball better. With the exception of John Graves, we weren’t very athletic inside, and we didn’t chase the ball. We had opportunities to chase the ball down, but we weren’t athletic enough, and we’ve got to be better there.

“We’ve got to be better on the perimeter, as far as leveraging the ball and getting better tackling from our rovers, whips and safeties. We played four different whips last year. At one time, our safety was the whip, and we’re rotating those guys around, and we weren’t consistently good at those spots to be consistently good as a defense, if that makes sense. So we’ve got to find the right guys at rover and whip. Those are key playmaking spots. Those are critical positions for us. We want to find guys who are good open-field tacklers and who are going to keep the ball inside and be playmakers.”

Q: This spring, you’ve been keeping close tabs on the rover and whip spots. Can you talk about some changes there and what you’re expecting?

BF: “Antone Exum will be at rover. We’ve taken James Hopper and moved him to offense because Tony Gregory’s out, and that hurts our depth. We’re looking at Lorenzo Williams at rover, and Eddie Whitley is at safety, with Theron Norman backing him up. Our safety spot is a little thin right now. Maybe we can find a safety with one of these corners, I don’t know.

“At whip, we’ve taken Nick Dew and brought him to whip. We’ve taken Dominique Patterson and moved him to whip. Gouv [Jeron Gouveia-Winslow] is a young player, and he’s got to get better. We need a guy who can play in space. We’ve had a lot of good whips over the years. They need to be good enough to play in space and good enough to be a force in blitzing and those types of things. We’ve got to find that guy. That’s a key battle in my opinion. We hope a guy like Alonzo Tweedy will step up. It’s his turn. He’s got a lot of tools, but he hasn’t found that ‘on’ switch. I’m hoping he can go out and play ball instead of ‘work’ ball, so to speak.

“That’s a playmaking spot, and that guy’s a special cat. We need to find that guy. He’s a cross between a safety and a linebacker and a cornerback. You haven’t seen me do much nickel defense this spring because I want to see what those guys can do. Can they cover, can they play, can they blitz, can they make plays in space – I’m finding out what those guys can do.”

Q: You played a lot of nickel defense last year. Is that because of youth at certain spots, or because of all the spread offenses you were seeing early in the season?

BF: “A little bit of both, but we just didn’t make enough plays in space. It got to the point where teams were spreading us out, and we needed an athlete who could play in space. That was the biggest issue.

“Then, we got into a situation where we were playing [Kyle] Fuller, and we wanted to find a spot for Exum. We were playing Fuller with ‘this’ personnel grouping and Exum with ‘this’ personnel grouping. Sometimes, we had Eddie Whitley as the whip with ‘this’ personnel grouping and Exum as the safety. To me, that was too much.

“In my opinion, we weren’t consistently good enough. We hung in there, and Torrian [Gray] did a great job of coaching that up, and the kids were opportunistic and made some plays. But that made things hard, and we weren’t consistent with our run fits and leverages. We’re getting back to that.”

Q: In watching your defense this spring, it’s hard not to notice that you guys are young again. Eddie Whitley is the only senior starter.

BF: “Yes, again, we’re going to be very young. We don’t have many seniors period. You’ve got Eddie, and then you’ve got Kwamaine Battle coming back from a knee injury and Barquell Rivers from that quad injury. If we started tomorrow, Eddie would be the only senior starter.

“Our ends are going to be new faces. Our back-up corners are going to be new faces. There are two positions, defensive tackle and linebackers, where we’ll have a little depth with experience.”

Q: Looking at the defensive front, there appears to be some unknowns, particularly with Graves and Steven Friday departing. Are you hoping to see some guys step up?

BF: “I think we’re pretty good at the point of attack, but turning and chasing the ball, other than John Graves, we didn’t make a lot of plays chasing the ball down the line of scrimmage.

“We’re trying J.R. Collins inside a little bit. It depends on how some of these ends come along. You’ve got James Gayle, and we’re hoping that Zack McCray will step up and Duan Perez-Means steps up. If they can help you, it may be a situation like when we had Jim Davis move inside. He gave us an athletic tackle who could make plays.

“We’ve got to be better at chasing the ball inside out. We’ve still got a lot of question marks from a depth standpoint, but we’ve got a lot of talented guys there.”

Q: You played Bruce Taylor at backer in the Orange Bowl because of Lyndell Gibson’s injury and Gibson is no longer with the program. What are you eventually going to do with Bruce?

BF: “Good question. It depends. I took him out of his element in the bowl game when I played him at backer. Even though the positions are very similar, there’s a big difference, especially when it comes to coverage. Bruce is our best linebacker, but he’s not a guy you want outside. He’s better inside, and he’s got a good football IQ. He’s smart about making calls. That’s probably where he needs to be, but at the same time, I’m going to play my best two linebackers.

“If Barquell comes back and is playing like he did before, then next fall, if Bruce and Barquell are our best two linebackers, then I’ll start Bruce off at backer. He can always go back to mike.

“There are too many subtle things that are different about the positions. Backer is closer to whip than it is to mike in some instances. At the same time, backer is closer to mike than whip in some cases. In the passing game, there are big differences, and I think I took Bruce out of his comfort zone in the bowl game. From my opinion, in watching the film, I thought he was off in the bowl game.

“The backer position has been a playmaking spot for us over the years. It’s been a very productive spot. But the last two years, it’s been an average spot for us. We need an athletic, explosive, dynamic guy, and I think Tariq [Edwards] has some of those qualities. He needs to finish spring out strong.”

Q: Who are a couple of players you’ve been watching closely this spring?

BF: “Up front, I’ve been watching the Hopkins boys [Antoine and Derrick]. I want to see them take their game up a notch and chase the ball more. I’ve been watching some of those back-up guys, like [Isaiah] Hamlette and [Dwight] Tucker and Nick Acree.

“I’m excited about our ends, especially with what James Gayle has done in the offseason. I’m hoping to see the emergence of a dynamic defensive end, like we’ve had here in the past. I think he and [J.R.] Collins could show up, and I’m excited about the potential of Zack McCray.

“I’m anxious to see how our backer position unfolds. That needs to be a more productive position, and I’m anxious to see how our whip position unfolds, too. I think we’ll be okay in the secondary, especially with Exum at rover.”