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March 13, 2014

Tech "D" looking to reload this spring

By: Jimmy Robertson

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster is hoping several young players progress this spring, as he and his staff look to replace several starters, particularly along the defensive front

Der’Woun Greene is one of many young players who will get a close look this spring, as Tech looks for playmakers on defense.

Despite dealing with numerous injuries in the secondary, Virginia Tech once again featured a top-20 defense, as the Hokies finished fourth nationally in total defense (283.6 ypg) in 2013. The Hokies also finished in the top 10 in pass efficiency defense (tied for fifth, 101.6 rating), interceptions (tied for sixth, 19) and rushing defense (10th, 110.9 ypg), and Tech closed 2013 ranked 11th nationally in scoring defense (19.3 ppg).

But the Hokies lose five starters among their front seven. So can that unit be as good or better next season? The process starts this spring, and defensive coordinator Bud Foster took time to answer a few questions before spring practice begins on March 26.

Q: Before looking ahead to spring practice, let’s look back on 2013. What are your thoughts on the season from a defensive coordinator perspective?

BF: “We had an outstanding year. The kids did everything we asked of them. For 12 games, we played our tails off. The bowl game, I was disappointed, but I take a little blame for that because we had a big emotional meeting the night before, and I think I drained them a little bit, to be honest with you. Prior to that, we played our tails off for 12 straight games. There are maybe a handful of plays I’d like to have back, but that’s about it. I couldn’t ask any more of our kids. They played hard, and they played consistently well.

“We played well enough to be a championship team. We had a championship defense. We had as good of a defense as we’ve had in a long, long time. We didn’t give up a lot of big plays, we made it tough for people to move the ball, we were good on third downs … it’s unfortunate we had a couple of injuries at the end of the year, especially Kyle Fuller. I think that hurt us a little, but at the same time, we had some young kids step up and overcome. I was proud of our seniors. They were great leaders for us, and they performed very well. Now we go into spring practice and we have some holes to fill. But all in all, last year, I couldn’t ask any more of our players and our staff.”

Q: At first glance, the strength of your defense heading into spring practice might very well be the secondary. Basically, four starters return – cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson, free safety Detrick Bonner and rover Kyshoen Jarrett. How optimistic are you about this group?

BF: “I’d say that group should be our strength because those are the guys with the most experience. Obviously, those two young corners played really well and now they’re game tested, and I’m hoping they’ll make a big improvement physically after having been in there with Coach [Mike] Gentry [Tech’s associate AD for athletic performance] all winter. Our safeties are returning, though Kyshoen is going to be out for spring ball (shoulder surgery). That gives us an opportunity to work some young kids. Desmond Frye is a guy who needs to step up and be more consistent. We’re going to look at Chuck Clark and Anthony Shegog and see where they fit in.

“We’re probably going to look at some guys from that back end forward to our nickel package as well. The past couple of years, we haven’t done much nickel during spring practice, so we’ll look at that and see if we can make it a competitive spot. We play it so much, with multiple receivers in the game. We’ll play that by ear. It depends on how people are competing and certain guys developing their skill level.”

Q: For two straight years, your front four was one of the defense’s strengths. Going into this spring, only Luther Maddy returns from that group. How concerned are you about youth and inexperience along the defensive line this spring?

BF: “The big question is who is going to be at defensive end. I think, at defensive tackle, you’ve got Luther coming back and he’s had a great career here, and I feel good about Nigel Williams and Woody Baron. Those two played enough that they should be very competitive inside. We don’t have much depth until the freshmen come in. We may work Corey Marshall both at end and tackle. We’ve got a kid in Wade Hansen, who was a transfer [from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute] and is a big kid, and we’ll look at him there. Jeremy Haynes is a walk-on who can play inside and at end, and he gives us some depth.

“But the big question mark is at defensive end. We had a lot of experience graduate. We do return Dadi Nicolas. He needs to be consistent in his play, but he has shown he can be a playmaker. After that, we have to find out who can play. The cupboard’s not bare, though. I’m excited about some of these kids, when you start talking about Ken Ekanem, Seth Dooley, Dewayne Alford and Vinny Mihota. We need to evaluate Vinny and determine if he’s an edge guy or an inside guy, but all those are guys I’m excited about and excited about their potential. We’ve got to squeeze in a year in about 15 practices with all those guys because they don’t have much experience.”

Q: Arguably, the biggest question marks on this team are the mike linebacker and backer spots. Chase Williams is the only one with any semblance of experience. How critical is this spring for him and how critical is it for Deon Clarke and Dahman McKinnon to progress this spring?

BF: “At linebacker, we’re in the same boat as we are at defensive end. Chase Williams will be the guy starting out at mike because he has the most experience. I’m excited about what I hear and have seen in limited looks of Andrew Motuapuaka. I’m going to look at a kid named Sean Huelskamp, a walk-on who has shown a few things, and Josh Eberly, another walk-on who has been in our camp.

“At backer, there is going to be a battle between Deon Clarke and Dahman McKinnon. Both of those guys have been up and down in their young careers, and I’m looking for some consistency. Jamieon Moss will be in the mix, and Drew Burns is going to work at backer. He’s a longer kid and athletic, and I think his skill set fits a little better at backer. We’ll see. We want to create competition. That’s a position where we have the least experience, but it’s a position that needs to be productive. In the whole defense, that’s the biggest question mark. Those guys have played at times, but they need to play at a consistent and high level. They’ve been up and down.”

Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster hopes to see talent and consistency emerge this spring, particularly at defensive end and linebacker.

Q: How important is this spring for Corey Marshall, considering his situation from last season? He’s a talented player with some experience.

BF: “Corey still has a lot of work to do in the classroom and things like that. If Corey can get his act together and be consistent in all aspects of his life and that carries over to the field, he can be a benefit to our football team. You want to put your best people on the field, and he has the ability to play either/or [defensive end or tackle]. But he’s got to clean up some things off the field, and when he does that and becomes consistent with that, he’ll be consistent on the field.

“I’m a big believer in that. How you are off the field is how you are on the field. If you’re consistent in your day-to-day life or in the classroom, you’re going to be the same cat on the field. He’s a perfect example of that. But at the same time, a lot of that is maturity. You’re dealing with young people, and the light bulb comes on at different times. I’m hoping that he realizes how important we, as a program, are for him and for his future, for him to get a quality education and be a success in life. He’s an intriguing guy. We just need for him to do the right thing.”

Q: You’ve faced so many “spread” offenses now the past two years, and that has forced you to play a lot of nickel defense with five defensive backs. Will you change what you do with the whip linebacker position or even phase the position out?

BF: “No, we’re still going to have a whip. I think you have to when people get into two backs and two tight ends, or bigger personnel groupings.

“That position is still a playmaking spot for us. Between our rover and our whip, those guys need to be good tacklers and need to be able to play in space because we bounce the ball [carrier] out to them. They’re usually our free hitters. They need to be good cover guys. They need to be complete football players.

“The whip position doesn’t change from the type of athlete we want there. You still need a bigger body there because you still see teams use multiple tight ends and things like that. You want that bigger body to hold up at the point of attack. You want him to be physical enough and athletic enough so that you can run your package.

“I want us to be able to run all our packages. I want us to be able to blitz off the edge with that guy. A couple of years ago, we kind of jumped around at that position and used different guys [Ronny Vandyke, Alonzo Tweedy and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow], and we didn’t pressure out of it. We didn’t do some things out of it, and it affected us. I think that’s the important part.

“Now, I’m hoping a guy like Ronny Vandyke comes back – and he will come back, but I wish he was going through this spring. But he’s a guy who can run well enough, and he’s a long body who can blitz. He’s a guy I’d love to have. He could play that spot, like we did with Cody Grimm. He could do some things athletically and not be a big liability if you had him match up on a wide receiver.”

Q: That said, you’re thinking about working more on your nickel defense this spring, aren’t you?

BF: “We may. We’re going to play it by ear and see. I think we need to settle in on a nickel guy and a backup. Last year, we had some injuries in the secondary, and we were juggling guys around. Kendall Fuller started out as our nickel guy, and then we used Chuck Clark there some and Detrick Bonner some. So I’d like to get one guy and a backup. I want to take a look at a guy like Der’Woun Greene, and I want us to see where Chuck Clark and a guy like Anthony Shegog, who we redshirted last year, fit in. I think all those guys can help us. We just need to figure out the right spots for them.”

Q: I know you guys visited with the Ole Miss’ staff a few weeks ago. What was the connection there, and are you planning on tweaking things this spring?

BF: “We’ve known Dave Wommack [Ole Miss defensive coordinator] for a long time. We visited out there years ago when he was at Arkansas. They run a similar package. There were a couple of things we wanted to look at, and they wanted to talk to us about a couple of things that we do. It was a good visit. We shared ideas. We’re not going to change what we do, but we’re always looking to tweak it and see if we can add a little wrinkle to our scheme. Maybe find something that can help us against certain offensive schemes that they’ve had success with and vice versa.

“I also wanted to see their infrastructure. They’re a lot like us in a lot of ways. At the same time, we’re behind in terms of personnel within our building. Every place now has two or three people in recruiting and quality control people. That’s what I wanted to see. They have seven or eight people outside of our John Ballein [associate AD for football operations] and Bruce Garnes [deputy director of football operations] who are football guys. We [as coaches] kind of do it all. They have guys who evaluate personnel [recruits] and tell you, ‘Hey Coach, here are the top linebackers that you ought to look at.’ That’s what everyone in the country is going to, so I was just looking at that and seeing how we could improve ourselves. You can’t stay status quo. You’ve got to keep moving forward and not just on the football field. There are a lot of things off the field that can help make you good on the football field.”

Q: There was some chatter after this past season that your defense struggled some against running quarterbacks, and that was the Achilles’ heel of your defense. What is your response to that?

BF: “The Maryland quarterback [C.J. Brown] made a couple of plays running. He had been injured, and the week before [the Tech-Maryland game], we didn’t see that mobility, and we played a coverage where we were matching our linebackers on their backs, and they’d check and release. That left a space for him to run. We needed to make sure we were good in our rush lanes. We played more athletic quarterbacks earlier in the year that didn’t give us fits. It was just that we weren’t good in our rush lanes that game.

“But Duke didn’t hurt us. They had a scrambling quarterback [both Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette], and he didn’t hurt us. The long touchdown that the UCLA guy [Brett Hundley] had, we had the right defense, and one of our ends busted it. We should have had a guy right there, a free hitter, and you tackle him for a 5-yard gain.

“Against Marshall, their kid [Rakeem Cato] wasn’t a big runner, but he ran a little more than we thought he would, and he’s athletic enough to create. But he didn’t hurt us. East Carolina’s quarterback [Shane Carden] was a scrambling quarterback, and we kept him contained. We kept UVa’s quarterback [David Watford] contained.

“For the majority of the time, we did a good job. It’s college football. It’s 11 on 11. If you don’t have that guy accounted for, yeah, he has the potential to hurt you, but I wouldn’t say that those guys were a consistent pain in our tail. There were a couple of plays where guys made some plays, and that’s a credit to them. Now, every team’s quarterback is almost a tailback back there, and you have to account for him.

“But looking back, the Maryland game was the one game where the quarterback made some plays and kept some drives alive, and he made a big play in overtime to help them win the game. That’s the one game that stands out to me.”