Football is changing.
As recent as the mid-2000s, most college and professional offenses ran a “pro-style” system, generally resulting in two-wide receiver sets with either two tight ends or two running backs. Some college offenses began spreading the field around that time, but most programs still ran a traditional scheme.
Fast forward to now, and college football is all about the spread offense. How far can you spread and stretch defenses, while also threatening to run the football up the middle out of the shotgun? The spread has torched and confused just about every defense at the college level, and spread offenses and concepts are spilling over into the NFL.
Of course, defenses have responded. Now, it’s not uncommon to see teams play in a nickel package as their base defense, to counter three and four-wide receiver offenses. Instead of playing three linebackers, teams will deploy another defensive back, who is better suited in coverage.
That defensive back, often referred to as the nickel, is quickly becoming one of the most important positions in football. And Mook Reynolds, once thought a tweener, is now one of the most important players on Virginia Tech’s defense.
“I feel like football is changing as a whole,” Reynolds said. “You have to adjust to what the offenses are giving you and in a lot of cases, they give you five-wide, spread offenses, and you have to have someone out there able to do it.”
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster and Virginia Tech made the switch in their base defense several years ago. Instead of playing a traditional 4-3 defense, Virginia Tech now employs a 4-2-5 defense, with Reynolds as the extra defensive back.
“I remember Bud (Foster) saying not too long ago that I was born for that position,” Reynolds said. “I would agree with that. It didn’t take me anytime. I felt like I should be playing that position day one. I kind of played it in high school. I played like a rover in high school, which is exactly what it’s like now, just to the boundary.”
Reynolds’ positions is one of the most demanding on the field. He must not only be able to cover receivers downfield, but also step up in the box and defend the run.
“Yeah, it is like three different positions,” Reynolds said. “You’ve got to be versatile. I feel like you have to see the game like a safety, cover like a corner and fill gaps like a linebacker and a safety. I think it’s really an instinctive position. You’ve got to have a natural feel for what’s going on out there. Sometimes, you’ve got to take risks at that position to make plays.”
“He’s probably the most versatile guy on our team, as far as defensive responsibilities,” said cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell. “He blitzes, he’s in man-to-man coverage, he’s got to be in zone, he’s got to take on the 250-pound tight end if he’s setting the edge. I mean, he’s got to have that versatility and that athleticism, and he can do it. Plus, he’s a pretty sharp kid. He’s got a pretty good football IQ.”
Reynolds really took to the position in 2016, registering 64 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions and six pass breakups. Reynolds’ best game of the year came against Arkansas in the Belk Bowl, when he made three tackles for loss, and recorded two sacks as well. Reynolds helped lead a defensive surge in the second half, guiding the Hokies to a come-from-behind 35-24 victory.
“I don’t even think I was supposed to play that game, because of my hip, but they put me out there. We called, dialed up the right plays and we had the right looks for them,” Reynolds said. “It was simplistic. The second half was crazy. I don’t know what happened. Whatever we ran, they ran the thing that it would work perfectly against.”
Since moving to the position, Reynolds has started picking up things from other defensive backs he sees playing a nickel/safety role, a role becoming more prevalent in the NFL with players like the Cardinals’ Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon, and the Giants’ Leon Hall.
“I say Tyrann Matheiu playing one of the coverages we play, and last year was our first time playing that type of coverage,” Reynolds said. “I had just accidentally seen him playing that coverage, and I just realized, ‘This is exactly what we play.’ I kind of stole the way he played it, and added my own twist to it. I’ve been playing it for a year, and I’m just really comfortable with it now.”
In year two, Reynolds hopes to become an even better nickel. With more and more offenses abandoning the traditional scheme in favor of spread attacks, Reynolds’ importance on the field will only increase.
“I don’t want to just get back there and be a contain blitzer. I want to get back there and make some more plays,” Reynolds said. “That did excite me, getting those sacks. It makes me want to get a few more now.”