Virginia Tech’s defense has taken its lumps against mobile quarterbacks in the past. Saturday’s contest against Liberty will feature the Hokies’ defense matched up with dual-threat quarterback Malik Willis.
Through five games, Willis leads the Flames with 495 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. So what’s the biggest key for Virginia Tech in order to shut down any damage Willis can do with his legs?
“Gap integrity,” defensive tackle Josh Fuga said. “We are a gap defense, so as long as we stay in our gap and don’t get real nosy in other people’s jobs, we’ll be fine.
“For the d-line, we’re just told one job which is to go get the ball carrier. We hit our guys and stay in our gap and we see the ball go the other way. It’s really tough, but we know that we are a gap defense and we have to do our job so everybody else can fit up.”
It will be the second game in a row in which the Hokies are facing a mobile quarterback. The defense held Louisville’s Malik Cunningham to 47 yards rushing, but the real damage came when Cunningham used his speed to break the pocket and find a receiver down field for his 350 passing yards.
“You have to rush really smart with those guys,” defensive end Justus Reed said. “They’re really athletic. They can move around really well in the pocket and get out of the pocket and scramble around and do things like that. It’s a mentality to have every time you rush… You just have to rush smart. That’s what the coaches preach to us every week.”
It’s not just Willis who can get it done on the ground for Liberty. The Flames average 255 yards rushing per game, a number good for No. 6 in the nation. Luckily for Virginia Tech’s defense, the Hokies’ front faces a run-heavy attack every day in practice and should be prepared.
“We practice all week chasing those guys, too, so it’s basically the same exact reps we’ll get in the games,” Reed said. “Having that at our disposal every week, it definitely helps us prepare for teams that have people who can run and also teams that are good at running the football.”
The defensive linemen’s work in the trenches on Saturday will be a key indicator on the result of the game. Monday’s media session also shed some light on the journey to get to this place for some of those members in the front four. Here are those stories.
After starting his career at the University of Florida, Justus Reed transferred to Youngstown State and made a name for himself over his three years in the Missouri Valley conference. In 2019, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound defensive end broke out with 42 tackles, 19.0 tackles for loss, 13.0 sacks and two forced fumbles. He knew his return to the FBS level was imminent.
It was a conversation with Justin Hamilton that let him know Blacksburg would be the right place for Reed.
“Just how engaging he was. He talks from a very truthful and honest place,” Reed said of Hamilton. “I felt like he had my best interest at heart and was going to put me in a good position to make plays, and also we were going to win a lot of football games. Definitely his input in recruiting me went a lot into making my decision to come here.”
After recording two sacks in his Hokies’ debut, Reed had gone mostly quiet over the next four games, tallying just 1.0 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks. That’s changed on Saturday versus Louisville when he got after the quarterback two more times and just missed on a couple other occasions.
“There was a few games where I was in my head about trying to make stuff happen and I wasn’t getting a lot of plays,” Reed said. “You just have to push that out of your head and all the plays will come to you. Just run the defense and you get rewarded. That’s what I did this past week and had some success with that. That’s what I’ll keep doing the rest of the season.”
Norell Pollard’s emergence has a key cog in the defensive line last year came as a surprise to many. True freshmen oftentimes aren’t able to make the jump to the college level right away and make a contribution, but Pollard was an outlier.
In 2019, the 6-foot, 265-pound defensive tackle collected 22 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, and three sacks in 13 appearances and two starts. Those two starts gave him a taste of what could heading into 2020.
“People could say I had a good year, I guess,” Pollard said. “I just knew I could have done better. I knew I could be a starter in this program. I think that’s what really motivated me, just coming back knowing I wanted to start. I just wanted to be the best that I can be.”
As it turns out, the quarantine and move to online classes in the spring may just have been what Pollard needed. The second semester as a freshman is always more challenging, and the move back home to Florida during this time allowed Pollard to refuel with his family by his side.
It also set him on a course for continued improvement by putting in work behind the scenes.
“Quarantine helped me a lot,” Pollard said. “I put work in. A lot of work, six days a week just to come back and potentially start how I am. That’s really my goal coming in was to get the starting job and help the team however I could.
“I got a buddy. I played high school ball with Tyler Davis. He plays at Clemson. We would just be six days a week working. We had a trainer, Mike Lockley, he played NFL. He trained us, then we would just do stuff Saturday by ourselves, like some sand work. Just knowing that we had to come back one day, and we wanted to be ready by the time we came back because there was really nothing else to do.”
So far this year, Pollard has started all six games and put together 18 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, and a sack.
Josh Fuga was a late signee to the 2019 recruiting class. He entered his freshman season and redshirted, using the time to hit the weight room and develop even more. He was also guided by the veterans who showed him what it means to be a part of Virginia Tech’s front four.
“It was a real challenge,” Fuga said of redshirting. “I took the challenge and I ran with it. I just got bigger, faster, stronger. That’s all I did really.
“Jarrod Hewitt, Emmanuel Belmar, those guys, as soon as I came in last year, they took me under their wing. They just helped me prepare for times like this when I’m getting a lot of playing time.”
This year, Fuga is 15 pounds stronger at 6-foot-2, 323-pounds. Now, Fuga has found himself in the two-deep and a part of that rotation that sees mass substitution packages throughout the game to keep everyone fresh. Fuga’s increased playing time over the past few games has led to positive production with 7.0 tackles and his first career sack last Saturday against Louisville.
“My feeling at the start of the season was just get better and get in the rotation. Nothing is guaranteed, so just get better every day.”
He’s one of the younger guys to monitor going forward, and he’s enjoying it every step of the way.
“If you ask guys around, I’m always happy,” Fuga said. “Bringing a lot of juice to the locker room, to the field. I’m always keeping guys upbeat. That’s just me as a player and as a person. I don’t like to dwell on things, I’m just more of a good guy to be around. I bring a lot to the table.”