Fast. Aggressive. Tenacious. Suffocating. Those are just a few of the adjectives used over the years to describe Virginia Tech’s defense. Characterized by hard work and symbolized by the now-famous lunch pail, Virginia Tech football has become synonymous with defense.
The Hokies led the nation in total defense in 2005 and 2006, becoming the first defense in 20 years to top the charts in consecutive seasons. But it’s not just about the last two seasons. Led by Bud Foster, the Hokies defense has been a consistent force and the foundation for the program’s rise to prominence over the past dozen years. How good and how consistent has the Tech defense been under Coach Foster? In the twelve seasons as the Hokies Defensive Coordinator, Coach Foster has been a four time finalist and the 2006 winner of the Broyles Award — given annually to the nation’s top assistant coach.
Impressive indeed. But you already knew that the Hokies have an excellent defense. But how does it work? What are the responsibilities of each position? What is unique about the scheme and why does it work so well?
I hope to answer most of those questions in a three part series on the Hokies defense. Part 1 will set the foundation and describe each of the positions. Part 2 will describe how each of the pieces fit together and how the scheme has evolved over the years. Part 3 will review the basics of various man and zone pass coverages.
It is not my intent to get into the low level details and nuances of the defense. That’s the level where the coaches play and I am not a coach. So I am going to keep this at about the 5,000 foot level — my comfort zone.
With that, let’s get on with Part 1 and talk some Tech defense.
There are base sets, player alignments, various fronts, blitz packages and pass coverages that make up the structure of the defense.
If that isn’t enough, there is all the confusing terminology. What is all of that and what does it mean? How does the “Backer” position differ from the “Mike” position? What is the “Stud End” position? What is a “Whip” and what are the key responsibilities of the position? What factors dictate how the players align from play to play?
Let’s first look at the eleven positions that make up the Hokies defense:
- Defensive Line (4) : Stud, End, Nose, Tackle
- Linebackers (3) : Mike, Backer, Whip
- Defensive Backs (4) : Field Corner, Boundary Corner, Free Safety, Rover
Some of those position names are fairly common, while others are not. Those familiar with other defensive schemes may have seen positions defined as the “Left” or “Right” defensive end, the “Sam” or “Will” linebacker, the “Right” or “Left” cornerback, and the “Strong” safety. The reason is that many of those defenses set their player alignments based on different factors.
Some base it on the strong side and weak side of the offensive formation — the Sam linebacker is the strong side linebacker and the Will linebacker is the weak side linebacker. In those schemes, the “Sam” and “Will” linebackers will swap sides based on the passing strength of the offensive formation (usually defined by which side the TE lines up on). Likewise, the “Strong” safety generally aligns as the deepest defensive back on the strong side of the formation.
Other schemes set player alignment based simply on one side of the field or the other. The left defensive end plays on the left side of the defense. The right cornerback plays on the right side of the defense.
Many schemes use both — the defensive line and cornerbacks always play on the left or right side of the defense while the linebackers and safeties align based on the strength of the offensive formation. This is fairly common for defenses that play traditional schemes, especially in the NFL where the hash marks are much closer together than they are in college.
Ball Position and Tech’s Defensive Scheme
What’s that about hash marks? Why are they important? How do they factor into how the Hokies play defense?
The hash marks are a key factor in that the ball position relative to the hash marks determines on which side of the ball most of the Tech defenders will align. Said another way, the Tech defenders know which side to line up on simply by looking at the ball and how it is positioned relative to the two sets of hash marks. From there, the players will align according to the offensive formation and defensive front and coverage call, sliding and/or rotating in conjunction with the strength of the offensive formation.
I mentioned above that the NFL hash marks are much closer together than college hash marks. In the NFL, on a field that is 160 feet wide, the hash marks are only 18 feet, 6 inches apart (the same width as the goal posts). That’s a pretty narrow slice of real estate, and since the ball is always placed between the hashes it means the ball is basically in the middle of the field on every snap.
In college, the field is also 160 feet wide, but the hash marks are 40 feet apart. Plays that are snapped directly on the hash will have only 60 feet to the short side of the field and 100 feet to the wide side of the field. That’s a significant difference that college level defensive coordinators must consider when setting up their scheme.
In Tech’s defensive scheme, the ball position relative to the hash marks is the starting point for how most of the players align from play to play.
Let’s break down each position in a little more detail to see how that works. To open the following diagram up in a separate browser window, so you can view it and the article at the same time, click here.
The Hokies base defense utilizes four defensive linemen. By position, they are the Stud, End, Nose, and Tackle. The Stud and End are the two defensive end positions. The Nose and Tackle are the two defensive tackle positions.
The Hokies play what is called a “1-gap” scheme. This means that each of the defensive linemen is responsible for attacking and securing a single gap (ie, a single hole in the offensive front). An offense structures their plays to direct the ball through specific holes as dictated by formation, blocking scheme, etc. In a “1-gap” system, each defensive lineman is assigned a specific gap and he is responsible for penetrating that gap and securing any action that the offense directs to that gap.
Just for completion, some other defenses play a “2-gap” scheme. In this system, each defensive lineman is responsible for two gaps in the offensive front. A “2-gap” lineman normally isn’t looking to attack and penetrate. Rather, he is looking to hold his ground, read the play, and react properly to secure the correct gap.
“2-gap” teams tend to prioritize size and strength for their defensive linemen while “1-gap” teams tend to prioritize speed and quickness.
The “Stud” position is a defensive end in the Tech scheme. This is a key edge rush position and it is usually played by the most athletic / best pass rushing defensive ends on the depth chart. Often, you will see the Stud set up to the extreme outside edge of the offensive line. This alignment puts a lot of pressure on the offensive tackle / tight end in passing situations. Because of his speed and athleticism, this alignment also puts the Stud in good position to handle outside containment duties against a perimeter running game.
Historically, the term “Stud” end is associated with aligning to the strong side of the offensive formation. In Bud Foster’s scheme, the “Stud” always aligns to the wide side of the field, regardless of the offensive formation. Most offenses will go strong to the wide side of the field a higher percentage of the time, but there are many formations that the strength of the formation is to the short side of the field. In either case, Tech’s “Stud” end will align to the wide side of the field. Again, the wide side (or “field” in Tech’s scheme) is the widest part of the field measured from the position of the ball to each sideline.
Players past and present: current and former “Studs” in Bud Foster’s defense include Cornell Brown, Corey Moore, Nathanial Adibi (played both DE positions), Cols Colas and Chris Ellis.
Although he is recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, look for Chris Ellis to top the depth chart at the “Stud” position in 2007.
The “End” position is a defensive end in Tech’s scheme. This is a key run containment position that also needs to bring good perimeter pressure on the QB. The “End” is generally the bigger and more physical defensive ends on the Hokies depth chart.
In Bud Foster’s scheme, the “End” always aligns to the short side (i.e., the boundary) of the field regardless of the offensive formation. Again, the boundary is the shortest part of the field measured from the position of the ball to each sideline.
The “End” will usually set up just off the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle or in the tackle / tight end gap when the offense goes strong to the short side of the field.
Players past and present: current and former “Ends” in Bud Foster’s defense include Hank Coleman, John Engelberger, Jim Davis, Darryl Tapp, Noland Burchette (played both DE positions) and Orion Martin.
Look for Orion Martin to be the starter at the “End” position in 2007.
Nose / Tackle
Because of how the players are used in Tech’s scheme, I will cover these two positions together. The “Nose” and “Tackle” are the two defensive tackles in Bud Foster’s defense and are generally interchangeable, meaning that on any given play, either defensive tackle can be the “Nose” or the “Tackle”.
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The “Nose” refers to the defensive tackle that aligns in the gap between the offensive center and guard. Sometimes, we will hear this position described as the “1-technique”. That refers to a very specific pre-snap alignment. In the case of a “1-technique”, the specific pre-snap alignment is to set up on the inside shoulder of the offensive guard.
The “Tackle” refers to the defensive tackle that aligns in the gap between the offensive guard and tackle. Sometimes, we will hear this position described as the “3-technique”. This defines the pre-snap alignment of the defensive tackle specifically on the outside shoulder of the offensive guard.
Unlike many other positions, the alignment of the defensive tackles in Bud Foster’s scheme is not based on wide side / short side of the field. Rather, each defensive tackle plays on the same side of the ball on every play. In other words, there is literally a left defensive tackle that always aligns on the left side of the ball and a right defensive tackle that always aligns on the right side of the ball. From play to play, either defensive tackle can have the “Nose” responsibilities and either can have the “Tackle” responsibilities.
Why is this done? Both tackles are closer to the ball, so there is little advantage in swapping sides based on the position of the ball relative to each sideline. Plus, most inside linemen are more comfortable coming off the ball on one side versus the other. Keeping each defensive tackle positioned to the same side of the ball on every play allows Charley Wiles to coach a consistent technique for each player. Whether they are aligned as the “Nose” or the “Tackle”, they can use consistent techniques without having to adjust their attack angles and hand play.
Players past and present: there have been many very good defensive tackles during Bud Foster’s years as defensive coordinator. J.C. Price, Waverly Jackson, Carl Bradley, Nathaniel Williams, David Pugh, Chad Beasley, Tim Sandidge and the Lewis brothers (Kevin and Jonathan) are just some of the names. Defensive end Jim Davis moved inside his senior year to play the right defensive tackle position.
The Hokies are well stocked at defensive tackle for 2007 with Carlton Powell returning as the starter at right defensive tackle and Barry Booker returning as the starter at left defensive tackle.
The Hokies base defense utilizes three linebackers. By position, they are the Mike, Backer, and Whip. The Mike is an inside linebacker, the Whip is an outside linebacker and the Backer can be either an inside linebacker or an outside linebacker.
The “Mike” is an inside linebacker in Tech’s system. This is a key run support position and it requires a strong, physical player that can operate well between the tackles. The Mike also has key pass coverage responsibilities, especially in 2-deep zones where the Mike has to take a deep drop. I’ll talk specifically about pass coverages in Part 3 of the series.
In Bud Foster’s scheme, the Mike is a “field” side position player and will normally align in an area between the ball and the Stud end depending on the offensive formation. Against most formations, the Mike will align much like a traditional middle linebacker in other systems. He will play the majority of the time in the tackle box.
Players past and present: current and former Mike linebackers in Bud Foster’s system include George Del Ricco, Michael Hawkes, Jake Houseright, Mikal Baaqee and Vince Hall.
2006 Dudley Award winner Vince Hall returns for his senior season as Tech’s starting Mike linebacker in 2007.
The “Backer” is a combination inside / outside linebacker in Tech’s system. This is key run / pass position and it requires a player that is physical enough to play inside the tackles against the running game and athletic enough to match up against wide receivers and running backs in the passing game.
In Bud Foster’s current scheme, the Backer is a “boundary” side player and he will always align to the short side of the field. Against most formations, the Backer will join the Mike and align as an inside linebacker (ie, both will set up as linebackers between the two defensive ends).
Against certain formations, the Backer will step out and align as an outside linebacker. When offenses line up with two wide receivers to the boundary side of the formation, it is the Backer that will step out and match up over the slot receiver. He may take that slot receiver in man coverage or he may have boundary side underneath zone responsibilities. More on that in Part 3 of the series.
Players past and present: There have been a number of terrific players to man the Backer position during Bud Foster’s tenure as Tech’s defensive coordinator. The list includes Myron Newsome, Jamel Smith, Ben Taylor, Vegas Robinson and Xavier Adibi.
The Backer position will be in good hands once again in 2007 with Xavier Adibi returning for his senior season.
The “Whip” is an outside linebacker in Tech’s system. The name “Whip” is held over from the 8-man front days when the Whip generally aligned as the outside linebacker on the weak side of the formation.
The Whip is a key perimeter position in both the running game and the passing game. It requires a player with the athletic ability to blitz off the edge, to cover receivers down the field, and to play containment against the running game.
In Bud Foster’s current scheme, the Whip always aligns to the wide side of the field. Against base offensive formations, the Whip will set up as a traditional outside linebacker off the shoulder of the Stud end. Against 3-4 wide receiver formations, the Whip will step out and match up over the slot receiver to the wide side of the field. In obvious passing situations, the Whip sometimes will align several yards off the ball in a pseudo-defensive back position, typically when in man coverage against the slot receiver.
Many may remember that Bud Foster made some changes to the scheme following the 2003 season. The changes to the Whip and Rover positions were the most discussed, with the Whip no longer aligning as a deep safety in 2-deep zone sets. The nature and purpose of those changes will be described in more detail in Part 2 and Part 3 of the series. For now, the key points to note about the Whip are:
- has outside linebacker responsibilities, both in run support and in pass coverage
- always aligns to the wide side of the field
- shades alignment from outside the Stud to the field (ie, wide side) slot receiver
Players past and present: former “Whip” linebackers in Bud Foster’s system include Brandon Semones, Ben Taylor (’99), Phillip Summers, Mike Daniels, Brandon Manning, James Anderson and Brenden Hill.
Currently, Corey Gordon has the inside track to be the starting Whip linebacker in 2007.
The “Boundary Corner” is one of two cornerbacks in Tech’s system. The other is the “Field Corner.”
As the name implies, the Boundary Corner always aligns to the boundary (i.e., short side of the field). Given the nature of boundary defense, the Boundary Corner is generally the more physical of the two cornerbacks. He can have boundary side containment in the run game, particularly when the offense formations strong to the wide side of the field. These “field heavy” formations (i.e., no wide receivers to the boundary side) will pull the linebackers toward the wide side of the field with the Backer aligning as far inside as to be directly over the ball. This leaves the Boundary Corner responsible for run containment to the boundary.
In pass coverage, the Boundary Corner has traditional cornerback duties, both in man and zone coverages. I will cover this in much more detail in Part 3.
Players past and present: many of Tech’s former cornerbacks were capable of playing either side and indeed some played both the boundary and field corner positions during their careers. Some of the better known Boundary Corners under Bud Foster include Antonio Banks, Ike Charlton, DeAngelo Hall, Jimmy Williams and Brandon Flowers.
For 2007, the Boundary Corner is in good hands with Brandon Flowers returning to man the starting spot.
The “Field Corner” is the second of two cornerbacks in Tech’s system.
As the name implies, the Field Corner always aligns to the field (ie, the wide side of the field). He can have a significant amount of turf to cover, so the Field Corner is generally the quicker of the two cornerbacks.
Like the Boundary Corner, the Field Corner has traditional cornerback responsibilities, both in run support and in pass coverage. In the run game, the Field Corner’s primary objective is to prevent the ball from getting outside of him, so he will generally come up to take on blocks to force the ball back inside towards the defensive pursuit. In pass coverage, the Field Corner is often matched up against the Flanker or Split End depending on the formation. He may have man to man responsibilities or zone coverage responsibilities.
Players past and present: several players have played both the Field Corner and Boundary Corner spots during their careers. Some of the better known athletes to play the Field Corner spot for Bud Foster include Larry Green, Loren Johnson, Anthony Midget, Ronyell Whitaker, Eric Green and Victor Harris.
Victor Harris returns in 2007 as the starter at Field Corner.
The “Free Safety” is one of two safeties in Tech’s system. The other safety is the Rover.
The Free Safety is often considered the quarterback of the defense. He will make many of the pre-snap coverage adjustments, ensuring that everyone is lined up properly from play to play. It is a mentally challenging position and it requires a player that is not only athletic enough to cover a significant amount of ground, but a player that understands the nuances of the scheme, the assignments of each player, and how each piece of puzzle fits together to form the structure of the defense.
The Free Safety is normally the deepest player at the back end of the defense, and he will always align in the deep middle with coverage rotation to the wide side of the field. In run support, the Free Safety has a key role in controlling cutback lanes behind zone blocking or slanting offensive lines.
Players past and present: Free Safeties under Bud Foster include William Yarborough, Torrian Gray (’96), Keion Carpenter, Nick Sorensen, Willie Pile, Vincent Fuller and D.J. Parker.
D.J. Parker will return for his senior year in 2007 as the starter at Free Safety.
The “Rover” is the second of two safeties in Tech’s system. The name is held over from the 8-man front days when the Rover was a combination strong side linebacker / defensive back. This is a playmaking position that is best suited for an athlete that is physically strong enough to play like a linebacker and athletic enough to play like safety.
In Bud Foster’s current scheme, the Rover generally sets up as one of the two deep safeties in the pre-snap base defense. The Rover always aligns towards the deep middle with coverage rotation to the boundary. In run support, the Rover is a key gap control defender and will often have boundary side containment against formations with heavy passing strength to the wide side of the field. In pass coverage, the Rover can have man to man duties (usually against a tight end) or zone duties, either underneath or deep.
Players past and present: Rovers that have played for Bud Foster include Torrian Gray, Pierson Prioleau, Cory Bird, Kevin McAdam, Michael Crawford, James Griffin and Aaron Rouse.
For 2007, Kam Chancellor heads into preseason practice atop the depth chart at Rover. He is in a battle with Dorian Porch, who enters camp at #2 on the depth chart.
There you have it. The eleven building blocks of Hokies defense. With the foundation in place, we can take a look at the system as a whole and why it is so challenging to the offenses that have to prepare for it.
Next Up:How those building blocks fit together to form a scheme.
Note: This material was not reviewed or edited by any member of the Virginia Tech football coaching staff and is the author’s own personal observations and interpretations of the Virginia Tech defensive scheme and philosophy.