Virginia Tech Defense Adjusting To Schematic Changes

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A new defensive scheme, and no change to practice that new scheme in the spring, has held back the Virginia Tech defense. (Virginia Tech sports photography)

For so long, Virginia Tech football fans became accustomed to a dominant defense that would carry the team through thick and thin. In 2020, the vaunted Lunch Pail Defense has been missing a beat.

Through seven games, the Hokies are allowing 31.6 points per game and 460.7 yards per game. Those figures rank No. 10 and No. 12 respectively in the ACC. With the loss of spring ball and a number of players unavailable in fall camp, it’s taken longer than expected for the players to adjust to Justin Hamilton’s new defensive scheme.

“It’s a little bit more complex defense than Bud’s,” linebacker Dax Hollifield said during Tuesday’s media availability. “We’re very, very close as a unit to being a really good defense, but that’s just football. There’s a handful of plays that you wish you could get back each week, and those are really the signs of a great football team compared to just an average football team.

“If everyone does our job, we’re going to smother people, and we have to take that next step. We’re really close, but a little more practice and a little more beating it in. We’ve got to get right and we also have to practice better throughout the week. We’re getting that right this week.” 

The biggest issue for Virginia Tech’s defense is the inability to stop the run. Opponents are averaging 5.2 yards per carry (tied for worst in the ACC) and 202.9 yards rushing (No. 14 in the ACC) against the Hokies. So what about Hamilton’s new scheme isn’t clicking yet in the running game?

“It’s the fits a lot of times are really based on coverage and everything,” Hollifield added. “We play a lot of one high looks a lot of times, which really doesn’t account for the quarterback. Coach Foster’s defense basically read the run the same way every time, which works, but they can scheme it up sometimes to put us in bad position. Now, we have an answer for every play they give us, we just have to read it the right way to get to that. If you’re not focused, if you’re lackadaisical, if you’re not on your assignment every play, then they’ll gash you.”

It’s the lack of focus and failure to play assignment football that has really caused the Hokie defense troubles. Those issues are only compounded when a player is in position and fails to make a tackle in space. It’s an area that head coach Justin Fuente knows the unit needs to address.

“We’re trying our best to teach it and putting our guys in better position,” Fuente said. “I think that can help us more than anything is to be in a little bit better position. Take a little bit of the air out of it. The two hardest things to do in football are tackling in space and blocking in space. Obviously, the more space there is, the more difficult it is to get a skill player on the ground. 

“Taking some of the air out of those plays by being in a little better position I think would help. We’re certainly addressing it, we’re not ignoring it, but we can’t go scrimmage. We’re in the middle of it.”

If these concerns are taken care of, the defense should see an improvement in the other area that has caused major issues: third and fourth down conversions by the opponents. In 2020, Virginia Tech is allowing the opposition to convert on 41.2 percent of third downs. The Hokies have also surrendered 16 fourth down conversions on 21 attempts (76.2 conversion rate).

“If we could get off the field, that’s a lot of less yards they would have gotten, a lot of less plays they would have gotten, and points they would have gotten,” Hollifield said. “We’re very close, we’ve just got to execute those crucial downs to get off the field. That’s where we’ve got to do better right now – third down and fourth down, those are the most important plays.”

There’s certainly no rest for the weary. After Malik Cunningham and Malik Willis ran circles around Virginia Tech’s defense the past two weeks, the Hokies may have their biggest challenge ahead of them in Miami’s D’Eriq King.

King is coming off a 536 total yard performance against NC State with five touchdowns. He became the first quarterback to throw for 400+ yards and five touchdowns and also rush for over 100+ yards since he did it back in 2018 with Houston. 

“There’s a reason he’s in the Heisman race,” Hollifield said of King. “Last week, when I watched him against NC State, he lit them up. I’m very impressed with him. I don’t think anybody can really simulate that, but we’re doing the best job we can. Just getting everybody else, all the other positions to really mimic what they do. We’re going to be able to do it.”

With King holding the keys to the offense, first-year offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee has unleashed an explosive and fast Miami offense that has been missing in recent years. The responsibility falls on everyone on Virginia Tech’s defense to come together in an effort to slow it down.

“The main thing is staying with your receiver,” cornerback Jermaine Waller said. “They have a quarterback who can run and extend plays, which means the play isn’t over at the end of the route. He might run across the field and run back the other way. You have to keep your eyes out of the backfield and be locked in on your job and your job only.

“I’m just doing my job and trusting my other brothers on the field to do their job. If I stay with this receiver, then this guy will close off the space and fill this gap or things like that. We all have to come together as a unit and trust each other.”

When Miami visits Blacksburg on Saturday, many eyes will be on the Hokies to see how they respond to last week’s letdown. After all, Fuente is 14-5 in his career at Virginia Tech following a loss.

“No matter how we feel right now, Miami is coming into our house a week from now,” senior captain Jarrod Hewitt said. “No matter what just happened, so we’re going to have to turn the page. We have two choices. That’s either turn the page or not. It will be evident what we decided to do on Saturday when we play Miami.”

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22 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Regardless of scheme, the D still needs to wrap up and tackle. Besides being out of position, I’ve seen so many plays where they have offensive players just run through them.

  2. We need to hear from our D coordinator. J Ham is a smart and talented guy. Why are we not hearing from him. He is making $600,000 a year. He should be able to address the media and fans with comments. Give J Ham a chance to speak up and talk about his defense. I believe the fans will give him a fair shake.

    1. He’s not Bud Foster. Unless you are a big time name, I can’t think of a program who let’s their coordinators address the media.

  3. Dax is a good one to talk. One of the most overrated players ever. He has been disappointing. He runs away from every play.

    1. 1Hokies1 you are better than that…the guy bleeds hokie maroon….get on our coaches but leave our players alone…tough year for everyone 😷✌️

  4. I’ve adjusted my thinking since the Liberty loss. I’m giving this team a pass for this season. New coaches, new scheme, new technique, no spring camp and all the churn in the lineup due to COVID makes it real tough to establish any consistency. Not going to worry so much about W’s & L’s…will be watching for improvement in certain players on D with an eye on next season. Hoping it’ll be at least semi-normal.

    1. Add in :
      No Caleb Farley
      No Devon Hunter
      Waller has been hurt most of the games
      Crawford has played hardly at all
      Our sack leader in 2019 (Belmar?) sat out until Louisville. Just getting into shape
      And absolutely we give JHam space

    2. That’s a sensible way to look at it FosterD1. Plus, as bad as it feels to lose to a good or bad team, it’s still exciting to watch our Hokies play. Shoot, all 3 losses, we were in a position to get the victory till the very end (Liberty), in the last 2 minutes (wake), and mid-4th Qtr (UNCheat). Keep watching, keep rooting, keep giving. These are our Hokies warts and all and we love ‘em.

  5. Not sure I like Dax’s comment about the complexity of the defense. I’ve always thought that some coaches can make the schemes too complicated, making the players think too much, more than just react.

    Not saying our guys aren’t smart, because they are. Just hope things aren’t too hard to pick up.

    1. I think once they learn it then their head won’t tie up their body and they’ll play more reactively and instinctively. That’s what’s missing right now.

  6. What happened to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Covid issues aside, this D should be doing much better. Is that all due to new scheme? Players played well last year are playing crappy this year.

    1. Do you mean why is the scheme changing? 1) Fosters scheme struggled against modern offenses, 2) Hamilton scheme is more suited to the modern game but is going to take time to learn. They have to start learning it sometime

      1. Struggled against modern offenses?? We finished 4th in the nation in scoring defense in 2017. 2018 was bad no doubt about it. But we bounced back in 2019 and even shut out 2 ACC teams. I’m not sure this year’s defense could post a shutout against some local high school teams.

        1. We lost three games On the last possession last year because our D couldn’t get a stop. If we win 11 last year, there’s no “fire the coach chatter this year.
          Let’s trust JHam and hope he does well

          1. We have also lost the three games thus far by slim margins. The offense did plenty, the defense not so much. This will come.

            My only concern is in recruiting. We have to get some studs. More Herberts.

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