Virginia Tech Notebook: Clemson’s Dominant Line, Kelly Bryant and Mihota’s New Role

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Josh Jackson (17) and the Virginia Tech offense face quite the challenge on Saturday. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

Before diving into my notes from today, make sure you check out my notebook from Monday. Also, if you’re a subscriber, read Will Stewart’s Monday Thoughts.

Now, let’s talk about Clemson.

Virginia Tech Offense Preparing for Dominant Clemson Front

Virginia Tech’s offense knows it will face a tough test this weekend.

The Clemson defense almost needs no introduction. The Tigers are ranked third in FBS in total defense, second in sacks and are in the top-25 in preventing third down conversions. The Tigers have talent across the board, something Virginia Tech is well aware of.

“I know they have a great defensive coordinator, I know they have a great defensive line, and coverage-wise they run just about everything,” said quarterback Josh Jackson. “I’ve been watching them all weekend up to today, and they have a very — they can run a lot of stuff because they have great athletes and smart football players.”

Clemson’s defensive line leads the unit. Defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, as well as defensive end Clelin Ferrell, are among the best defensive players in the entire nation. Wilkins led Clemson in tackles for loss in 2016, while Lawrence and Ferrell were second and third, respectively, in sacks in 2016. All three are world-class linemen, and will pose a difficult challenge for Virginia Tech’s offense.

“I would stop saying it’s just talent, I mean they are well-coached and disciplined, and all those sorts of things, but you don’t have the success they’re having without those things, but the size and power jumps out at you,” Fuente said. “I mean, they’ve got almost an embarrassment of riches over there on the defensive line. I know some of the guys that they’ve recruited, and they’re not in the two-deep.”

The coaching that Fuente is referring to is also about as good as it gets. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has been highly regarded as one of the best coordinators in college football, a compliment Bud Foster sees as more than just appropriate. In fact, Foster says he has spent some time in the offseason watching film of Venables’ defenses, hoping to pick up a few things.

“I really don’t know why he is not a head football coach right now, himself,” Foster said. “I mean, with his track record and what he’s done at Oklahoma, what he’s done and built at Clemson, I mean what they do is really outstanding. Obviously, he won the Broyles Award last year and deservedly so. I personally think he’s the best defensive guy in the business right now.”

Fortunately for Virginia Tech, they have a quarterback who is in a heck of a rhythm. Despite throwing his first interception last week, Jackson has impressed in the first four games. He’s completing 65.2 percent of his passes, and has thrown 11 touchdowns to just one interception. Having thrown just one interception, as bad as it might have been, is indicative of how well Jackson has taken care of the ball this season.

“I’ve seen him value the football. I think there is a level of understanding in real-time out there with him,” Fuente said. “He understands how important that is, and he’s very coachable and listens. These guys will certainly put that to the test, with the pressure they can put on the quarterback position.”

“Well, you have to be conscious about it, and you have to know what’s going on to take care of the ball,” Jackson said. “On that play, for example, the guy kind of messed with me. I thought he was going somewhere and he just bounced right out of it. I threw it right to him, pretty much. Kind of knowing what’s going on and everything like that, it will help you take care of the ball. There, he got me.”

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Even though Clemson lost Deshaun Watson from last season, defensive coordinator Bud Foster (above) sees the Tigers’ new quarterback Kelly Bryant as a threat as well. (Photo by Ivan Morozov)

Clemson’s Revamped Offense with Kelly Bryant

While Fuente, Jackson and Co. worry about Clemson’s defense, Foster is tasked with slowing a Clemson offense that scored 27 points in the fourth quarter alone last week vs. Boston College.

Quarterback Kelly Bryant has taken over the starting role for the Tigers, trying to replace Deshaun Watson. So far this season, Bryant is completing 67.9 percent of his passes, but has thrown only two touchdowns to three interceptions. Watson was one of the best players in the country last season, and Foster sees some similarities between the two.

“What you see in similarities are dynamic athletes,” Foster said. “I’m not going to put this guy in the same category with Deshaun right now, who I thought really was the best college football player in the country last year. I do believe this guy has a lot of the same qualities though, as far as good arm strength, he makes good throws down the field, he seems to make good decisions with the ball in his hands, he’s dynamic and explosive.”

Where Bryant has found most of his success is as a runner. He’s toted the rock 66 in four games, averaging 4.1 yards per rush. He’s also rushed for seven touchdowns. Bryant’s ability to run the football has stuck with Foster, who sees Clemson running Bryant more often than they did Watson.

“What happens nowadays in today’s game is, running the quarterback, you can get a hat on a hat, and get a guy having to come off a block and make a play, and obviously defensively, what you’re always  trying to do is have one more defender than they have blockers, so you hopefully have a free hitter and the guy needs to make a play,” Foster said. “That’s the one thing we’re working really hard on, is trying to see where we can make sure we get that proper fit, because they’re like our offense is a lot of ways. They’ll see what you’re giving them, and then they’re going to try and attack it the other way.”

Another weapon to watch will be freshman running back Travis Etienne. He’s only seen limited carries in 2017, but has been explosive on nearly every touch. He’s averaging 12.7 yards per rush on 23 carries, and has already scored four touchdowns.

“Well, I think you’re seeing his role improve each and every week,” Foster said. “He’s averaging a little over 12 yards a carry every time he touches the ball, so very explosive and a big-play threat every time he touches the football, which is scary.”

Mihota adjusting to part-time role at defensive tackle

One of the key cogs in Virginia Tech’s defense is Vinny Mihota, who’s had to split his time at defensive end and defensive tackle this season. Mihota, who is listed at 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, is playing part-time at tackle to help alleviate depth concerns at defensive tackle.

“He’s handled that movement very well,” Fuente said. “He’s highly intelligent and can handle that sort of stuff. He understands the big-picture, in terms of scheme and has the physical skill set to do either one.”

It hasn’t been easy for Mihota. Though there are similarities between end and tackle in Virginia Tech’s scheme, knowing the different responsibilities on each play has proven to be a challenge.

“I think I’ve done pretty well. I’ve been productive,” Mihota said. “My main issue is just remembering all of the plays. It’s just kind of tough learning both, end and tackle, when you’re focusing mainly on end and having to just keep that in the back of your mind always.”

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5 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. “All three are world-class linemen, and will pose a difficult challenge for Virginia Tech’s offense.”

    World-class? That’s a little bit of hyperbole, isn’t it? They’re good, though and our offense will have their work cut out for them….

    1. Nope All-World is pretty accurate. DT Dexter Lawrence (5 star) is only a true sophomore (ACC Defensive Rookie of the year 2016/Freshman First Team All-American), but he’s the #1 DT for the 2019 draft(possibly #1 overall pick); Christian Wilkins (5 Star) is a junior and the #1 DT in the country/2018 NFL Draft-Top 10 pick (2016 First Team All-American); We know about Clelin Ferrell (only a high 4-star) the r-Soph from Richmond and one of the most elite defensive ends in college football. He’ll be a first rounder whenever he comes out. And the dude that plays opposite him at DE, junior Austin Bryant (was hurt most of last year-had 4 sacks against Auburn this year)…he’s pretty sick too and rising up the Draft Boards. Oh and junior ILB Kendall Joseph is ranked as the #3 ILB and #47 overall player on the 2018 NFL Draft Big Board.I could probably go on. But I guess it ultimately depends on your definition of world-class lol.

  2. “All three are world-class linemen, and will pose a difficult challenge for Virginia Tech’s offense.”

    World-class? That’s a little bit of hyperbole, isn’t it? They’re good though and we’ll have our offense will have their work cut out for them….

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