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March 14, 2012

Building on Success

By: Jimmy Robertson

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit played well in 2011, and he wants to build upon that in spring practice

Tech’s defense finished seventh nationally in scoring defense (17.6 ppg), 10th nationally in total defense (304.6 ypg) and 14th nationally in rushing defense (104.1 ypg) last season despite numerous injuries, and the unit completed the 2011 campaign with a dominating performance against Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster liked what he saw out of last year’s group and has high hopes for the 2012 unit. He sat down to answer some questions about the defense heading into spring ball.

Q: What is going to be the emphasis heading into spring practice at the end of March?

BF: “Obviously, we’ve got to keep improving. I thought we made big strides last year, but we’re still not where we can be as a defense. It’s going to be similar to springs in the past. We’ve got to keep the first-team guys getting better, and we need to close the gap between our second unit and our first. We did that naturally last year because of injuries, but we need some younger players to learn the defense and to improve.

“We need to find a couple of spots in the secondary. That’s the key spot for us. We also need to develop a younger whip. That’s going to be a priority for us. We still haven’t decided what we’re going to do as far as personnel in the back end, but we’re going to work it out so that we can get our best four people on the field.

“But I think, in general, we need continue to improve and continue to grow. We’ve got some young kids that I’m really excited about, and they need to learn their position, so we can get a good evaluation of them.”

Q: There’s been a lot of speculation about Kyle Fuller, arguably your best defensive player this past season, moving to free safety. What are your thoughts on him?

BF: “Kyle has played so many roles for us, but we’re looking at him as a corner first. We’ve got to find out who are safeties are going to be, and that’s the biggest question mark. You’ve got [Antone] Exum back there, but he’s in the discussion at another position – possibly at corner. We haven’t decided on that yet.

“Kyle will be a corner. That’s where we’ll start him out. We’ve got to develop a back-up guy, a third corner, that we’ll feel good about because we’ll still use the nickel package, and I think Kyle needs to be the nickel guy because he’s comfortable in that role and he’s shown that he’s a playmaker in that role.

“We probably won’t use any nickel this spring. I want to get a good evaluation on our whips and see what they can do coverage-wise, and I want to get a good evaluation on our corners. This time of year, for us, is not so much scheme as it is evaluating personnel and making sure we’ve got them in the right position to be productive for us. That, to me, is what spring ball is all about.”

Q: When you went back and looked at the film of last year, were you surprised at how much nickel defense you all played?

BF: “Well, we played nickel because we didn’t have any whips. [Jeron] Gouveia-Winslow got hurt, and if you look at our first couple of games, he played a lot. Then [Alonzo] Tweedy was hurt. So we had no choice but to play nickel. Our third whip was a freshman [Nick Dew]. So we played what was best for our personnel and what gave us a chance to win.

“But I still think, with today’s offenses, that matchups are critical. If we’ve got to matchup and put an extra defensive back in the game, then we’ll do that. Spread offenses force you to play five defensive backs.”

Q: Can the whip linebacker position be a part of the defense, with the way spread offenses have taken over?

BF: “Oh, yes. We want that guy to be kind of a hybrid anyway. He’s a strong safety/outside linebacker kind of guy. We’re looking at some things that will keep the whip in there, but we’re going to go with matchups. If they have one back and one tight end, we may keep the whip in there and have him take the tight end. We’re talking about doing some stuff like that this offseason. But if they give you four wide receivers, sometimes that whip is in a mismatch.

“It’s almost like having a 4-2-5 type of defense. That’s what the spread offenses are forcing people to do. That’s really what a whip is. He’s a strong safety, outside linebacker, nickel back type of guy. He wears all those hats, and he needs to be a talented player.

“We’re looking at a guy like Ronny Vandyke as a future guy there. He was a safety in high school, and he’s got coverage ability. He’s 218 pounds, and he’s almost 6-4. He could be a guy who could come off the edge and pressure, but I think he also could be a guy who could cover. That would be the ideal guy for me, a guy who can run and cover, but who also could come off the edge and pressure.”

Q: You’ve mentioned Vandyke a couple of times in interviews over the past couple of months. You like him, don’t you?

BF: “I like him a lot. I think he’s intelligent, and he’s a good football player. We haven’t finalized things with him, but he’s either going to be a rover or a whip. But I do like the kid.

“But that’s just how that position is evolving. You have to be half defensive back and half linebacker. He’s got to have the toughness to be a linebacker and the blitzing capability, but you also want him to have enough open-field capability to make plays in space.”

Q: Speaking of spread offenses, you all have had a lot of success against those in the past. Why is that?

BF: “We’ve always taught option principles, and that’s all this game is. They’re reading the defensive end, and people have been doing that for years. People got away from that for a little while, but now it’s coming back.

“It used to be that you could play 11 on 10 because people weren’t using that quarterback in that mold. Now, Donovan McNabb could run it and throw it, and they ran the option, so you were playing 11 on 11. Now, it’s evolved.

“Obviously, we didn’t play it very well against Clemson, but we played it consistently well throughout most of the year. I guess Clemson gave us some matchup issues, but I think our success goes back to teaching option principles and basic technique and fundamentals. We’re always teaching that first.”

Q: Looking at the back end of the secondary, who are some guys whom people should keep an eye on this spring?

BF: “We’re looking at Kyshoen Jarrett as a safety. Right now, we’re talking about – and people may think we’re crazy – playing Exum at corner. He reminds me of Jimmy Williams. He’s a big, physical, athletic guy. He can cover and run. He needs to improve on his adjustment capabilities, and that’s why we’re contemplating if we need to move him. We’ve even talked about [Detrick] Bonner as a safety, and maybe moving Kyshoen to rover.

“We’re just trying to get our best four out there and put them in the best position to be successful. That’s something we’re going around and around about, and I don’t know if we have the perfect answer. Some of these guys, we know about, and they know their positions. Some of them, after the first six or seven days of practice, we might mess around with a couple of guys at different spots.

“If we start Antone at corner, I’m hoping he could come back to rover if we need him to. He started 14 games there last year.”

Q: Your front seven should help the back four, shouldn’t it?

BF: “I hope so. I’m really excited about our ends. The first two guys [James Gayle and J.R. Collins] were very productive last year. We’ve got a lot of ends, and I’d like to look at a couple of them inside. Very few teams are going to line up and pound your [butt]. It’s all becoming that you have to make plays away from your alignment. You look at the New York Giants, and they played with all defensive ends up front – big kids who can run. I think we’re getting to that point.

“I’m excited about Zack McCray. I thought he made some improvement. I’m excited about Tyrel Wilson. He was very productive last year. You’d like for him to be bigger, but he’s only going to be so big. Then, I’m excited about Dadi Nicolas and Justin Taylor.

“You look at Corey Marshall, and he had a helluva Sugar Bowl. He’s so fast. People just run the zone scheme. It’s not like it’s two backs, and teams are lining up and knocking you off the ball. Being able to make plays away from your alignment and playing fast, that’s what we’re looking for right now.

“We’re talking to a couple of guys about moving down [to defensive tackle] just to get our best guys on the field. We did that with Jim Davis, and it was a great move for him and for us. You create matchup problems. You have a guy who may be a good end, but not a great end, and then you move him inside and he’s a great defensive tackle. Demetrius Taylor is a perfect example. They couldn’t block him. He was an average linebacker and a decent defensive end, but he was a great defensive tackle. He was a mismatch problem because of his athletic ability.

“That’s the biggest thing we may do this spring. I want to continue to develop that group. That’s where we can be different.”

Q: I know you all went to Jacksonville and visited with Missouri’s staff. Will you all do that with anyone else?

BF: “I don’t know. We’ve talked about visiting South Carolina to talk about Clemson a little bit. That’s not something we’d do before spring practice, but maybe this summer we’ll go down there and visit Whammy [South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, who used to be the secondary coach at Tech].

“Last spring, we dabbled with the 50 defense, and we did it some on third down with the 30 package. I’ve thought about going down and seeing Todd Grantham [the defensive coordinator at Georgia and a Tech graduate and former assistant coach]. That’s what they run.

“We’re not going to change. If we do anything, it’ll be to tweak some things we do, maybe find a little pressure that we can add to our package. But we do what we do, and we know how to adjust. We’re always looking to add a wrinkle here and there, and that’s what we did when we visited Missouri in Jacksonville.

“I think those visits, if anything, validate what you’re doing and that you’re doing it the right way. We were much better last year as a defense, and we can be much better. I want our guys to take the next step because, if you look at it, we’ve got everybody back for two years except Bruce [Taylor] and [Alonzo] Tweedy and Antoine Hopkins. So I want to take that next step, and I think that comes with experience. Hopefully, we’re gaining that.”