Spring football practice begins tomorrow for Virginia Tech and this morning, defensive coordinator Bud Foster was kind enough to oblige every question I could think to ask in 35 minutes, allowing me to provide you folks a pretty comprehensive spring preview of the defense.
First, here are a few of Foster’s general thoughts on the eve of his group’s first practice (we’ll get MUCH more specific in a moment) ...
“We’re a young group still. I think we’ve got three seniors – with a couple of them coming back from serious injuries and hoping they can return. You’ve got a few juniors, but most everybody is sophomores and redshirt freshmen. It’s still a growing year for us in a lot of ways, and sitting here looking at last year’s stats, we need to grow up in a hurry.
“Our first group’s all played. After that, you’ve got limited to no play for the second-string guys. But that’s what spring is for. The workout numbers were good. We’ve got kids that can run and we’ve gotten bigger, faster and stronger. Now we’ve got to transfer all that over to the field.
“It’s encouraging for the future. I think we’ve got a chance to keep this group around for two or three years ... and I hope we can get back to being the kind of defense we’re used to around here.
“My biggest concern is we need more production from our backer spot and we need to be more productive from our rover and whip spot, and we need to be more athletic at our defensive tackle spot.”
Foster also shared the initial pecking order at each position. This list is subject to some fairly drastic fluctuation, mostly in the backup slots, but it’s a good starting point to see where the Hokies stand as things get started ...
2011 PRE-SPRING DEFENSIVE DEPTH CHART
DT: 1. Antoine Hopkins (r-Jr.), 2. Isaiah Hamlette (r-Jr.), 3. Nick Acree (r-Fr.)
DT: 1. Derrick Hopkins (So.), 2. Dwight Tucker (r-Jr.), 3. Kwamaine Battle (r-Sr.)
DE: 1. J.R. Collins (r-So.), 2. Duan Perez-Means (r-Fr.), 3. Tyrel Wilson (r-So.)
DE: 1. James Gayle (r-So.), 2. Zack McCray (r-Fr.), 3. Justin Taylor (Fr.)
Mike: 1. Bruce Taylor (r-Jr.), 2. Jack Tyler (r-So.), 3. Barquell Rivers (r-Sr.)
Backer: 1. Tariq Edwards (r-So.), 2. Chase Williams (r-Fr.), 3. Telvion Clark (r-So.)
Whip: 1. Jeron Gouveia-Winslow (r-Jr.), 2. Alonzo Tweedy (r-Jr.), 3. Nick Dew (r-Fr.), 4. Dominique Patterson (r-Fr.)
SS: 1. Antone Exum (r-So.), 2. Lorenzo Williams (r-Jr.), 3. Wiley Brown (r-Jr.)
FS: 1. Eddie Whitley (Sr.), 2. Theron Norman (r-Fr.)
Boundary CB: 1. Kyle Fuller (So.), 2. Detrick Bonner (r-Fr.)
Field CB: 1. Jayron Hosley (Jr.), 2. Cris Hill (r-Sr.), 3. Adeboye Aromire (Fr.)
And finally, here are Foster’s complete thoughts on every position (and his new assistant coach), plus some pretty candid critiques of last season’s defense ...
D-COORDINATOR BUD FOSTER
ON HIS D-TACKLES WITH SENIOR LEADER JOHN GRAVES GRADUATING: “The Hopkins brothers are our starters and we feel good about them. The second guys, Dwight Tucker and Isaiah Hamlette, are guys who played sparingly last year. Hamlette’s got some ability, but he needs to be consistently better at the point of attack. Tucker’s got to be more athletic. And Kwamaine Battle was really a guy who played well in short periods for us last year in a game and a half before he tore his ACL. I’m hoping we get him all the way back. And Nick Acree, he’s lost weight, he’s been good in our 6 a.m. workouts, but he’s just a freshman when it’s all said and done.
“We need to be better at defensive tackle. We were decent at the point of attack last year, but we’ve got to chase the ball. When we had Carlton Powell here and Barry Booker, those guys made plays down the line. We didn’t make those plays last year.”
ON HIS D-ENDS NOW THAT CHRIS DRAGER HAS MOVED BACK TO TIGHT END: “Gayle and Collins, both those kids were productive players for us last year and I think those guys really have potential to be really good football players for us. We need James Gayle to keep going. He can be a special football player with his athletic ability and motor and those type things. I kind of liken Gayle to a young (Darryl) Tapp. The kid goes hard, 100 miles per hour. But does he have a purpose? When Tapp finally got a purpose, he was great. J.R. Collins (who will practice some this spring at D-tackle) is a critical guy, but I think even more critical is how a Zack McCray or Duan Perez-Means or one of those other ends steps up and allows us maybe to have a little more flexibility, to have more athletes across the front four.
“Collins is a guy that’s important, because we need more athletes inside. We’re good at the point of attack (with the D-tackles) but we’ve got to be better chasing the football inside-out. Because they don’t run at the tackles a whole lot. Most of that stuff’s going to come off-tackle. We want (the D-tackles) to flatten out and go make plays. So it depends on how some of these young ends look this spring – between Perez-Means, McCray and Justin Taylor, Tyrel Wilson – we may look at J.R. Collins, because he’s a bigger kid, playing inside a little bit.”
ON HIS LINEBACKERS: “Taylor and Tyler are the top two at mike, but I’m going to give Rivers a shot to see if he can get back. It’s been up and down a little bit with that quad still. That was such a devastating injury. That’s worse than an ACL or anything else. ... And with Lyndell’s situation, it’s going to be Tariq and Chase at backer, and then I’m looking to see what Telvion Clark can do. ... Whip and rover, to me, were spots last year where we weren’t as productive as we needed to be. And backer, too. Lyndell was a solid player but not very productive. We need more production – I’m talking sacks, minus-yardage plays – from those positions.
“Tariq gives us a chance, as a tall, rangy kid that can run. But he’s got to be consistently better. He was one of those guys who might be a gamer, but during the week his focus wasn’t there. He can’t be busting assignments during the week. That position’s been a playmaking spot for us and we’ve just been solid there the last couple years. I’m hoping Chase will be healthy. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. He hasn’t been healthy since he’s been here.”
ON THE WHIPS AND ROVERS: “We just weren’t consistently good enough last year. Gouveia-Winslow has got to be better (at whip). Between G-W, Tweedy, Dew and Patterson, that’s going to be a big, big battle this spring. We need playmakers at that spot. That’s been a playmaking spot in the past and we didn’t have any playmakers there last year. Any of those four could come out of spring as No. 1. I really believe that. ... At rover, we were inconsistent. We’re going to move Exum over there. We’ve also put Lorenzo Williams there, but right now I don’t know if he’s going to be ready for spring – he had foot surgery last year – so we’ve got Wiley Brown back there. But I’m anxious to see Exum. I think that’ll be a good spot for him. I think he’s a good tackler, got good coverage ability, and he’s a physical kid. I think that’ll be a good fit for us.”
ON THE PATCHWORK NATURE OF THE WHIP SPOT LAST YEAR: “We played with four when it was all said and done. We played with G-W, with Exum, with Fuller and with Whitley. And we weren’t a very good blitzing group out of that. We were a hodge-podge, and that’s how we played. We want to get back to establishing each position. We played a lot of nickel last year and we’re not even going to mess with that this spring, I don’t think, just because I want to see what these (whips) can do. Can they cover? Dew and Patterson are kids that can run really well. Tweedy can run really well. I’m hoping the light bulb will go off for him. On special teams, the guy is a playmaker, but we’ve got to get him where he can perform on defense.”
ON HIS SECONDARY, WHICH LOST LOCKDOWN CORNER ROCK CARMICHAEL AND ROVER DAVON MORGAN: “I think we’re going to be OK in the secondary. With Hosley, Whitley, Fuller and Exum as our starters, those guys have all played a lot and we feel good about them.”
ON LEAVING HOSLEY AT FIELD CORNER WHERE HE WAS AN ALL-AMERICAN LAST SEASON: “Well, we’ve got him at field, but we’re going to play left and right this spring (both Hosley and Fuller playing both sides) and then eventually go to field and boundary in the fall. We do that in the spring just so if there’s an injury, those guys can play both spots. And we can evaluate them a little bit. Spring’s more about evaluation and getting your best players in their best spot.”
ON WHETHER THAT’S THE EARLY INCLINATION, THOUGH, TO LEAVE HOSLEY AT FIELD CORNER: “Well, we’ll see. Yeah, he was good there and had a great knack for having great range and going to the football. But we’ll see. It kind of depends on how Fuller does. The boundary corner for us is going to be in a lot of man-to-man coverage, and maybe Jayron’s that guy. And maybe he wants that spot. That’s a big part of it, whether he wants to be there like some of the other guys have in the past.”
ON NOT HAVING MUCH DEPTH BEHIND THE STARTERS AT FREE SAFETY AND ROVER: “Yeah, we’re a play away from being questionable. I want to see what Theron Norman can do. Don’t know if Lorenzo Williams can practice or not. We’ve got a couple kids coming in the fall that might help us. I’m hoping (incoming freshman) Ronny Vandyke can help. He’s a big safety that played in a defense that uses our terminology and he played the rover and/or whip spot, so he would know the terminology. I’m hoping from a mental standpoint he can come in and pick things up quicker than most freshmen.
“But we’ve got to find some depth. Theron Norman needs to grow up and Lorenzo Williams is another guy who has not been healthy since he got here. He can run and do all those things athletically, but we have to find out if he can play football. I don’t know if he can play football yet. And Wiley Brown is a kid who has a lot of ability, but no experience. He was a good special-teams guy for us, though, and he’s a good little football player. Hopefully we can stay healthy and have some of these guys come along, but we may have to count on some young guys to figure in.”
ON HAVING CORNELL BROWN, WHO WAS A STAR PLAYER FOR HIM YEARS AGO, BACK AS HIS NEW ASSISTANT COACH: “It’s great to have Cornell back. He’s always been a special guy around here for us. What the guy brings to the table is he’s been a winner everywhere he’s been and he’s got a great personality. He coached with us (as a graduate assistant) after he got done playing ball, and I saw that this guy was going to be a good football coach. Then he got experience in the World League and won a championship, then in the Canadian Football League and won there. Even though it’s not the NFL, it’s professional football, and he won a championship. He’s won everywhere he’s been.
“And Cornell has just a great personality. I think he’ll be good in recruiting, good in teaching. It’s a good fit. I hate that Cav is where he is, but at the same time, we brought in a young, energetic guy that will relate to the players very, very well. I don’t think he’s going to be one of the boys, though. He’s going to demand they do the right thing. And they can respect that he’s had to perform at the highest level as a football player, so he knows what he’s talking about when he demands that they perform at the highest level. I think he’s going to be a great addition for our staff.”
ON HOW BROWN’S ON-FIELD COACHING WILL BREAK DOWN: “He’s coaching the whips and he’ll take the rovers in certain scenarios. He’ll work with the ends in certain situations, like when we work on pass-drops and things of that nature. He’s going to assist with our rovers when they’re coming down and playing in our eight-man front and work with our ends when we’re dropping them or they’re playing in space a little more. That way we can maximize our teaching and our coaching. We’ve just got to work through those details, but I think we can be better coaches that way.”
ON NICK ACREE DROPPING SERIOUS WEIGHT IN THE OFFSEASON: “Yeah, he went from 300-plus to around 275. He’s moving better, quicker. That’s something I think he wanted and felt like he needed to do to perform better and chase the ball. I think he ran a 5-flat in the 40, which isn’t bad for that size. Dwight Tucker ran a 4.88 and Derrick Hopkins ran a 4.94. That’s better, but now they need to play that fast.”
ON ACREE BEING A PHYSICAL FREAK WHEN HE ARRIVED LAST FALL AS A FRESHMAN, BUT ... “He realized that being pretty is not going to get it done. You’ve got to be a football player. With him, he has so much to learn still as a football player. Just basic things. He’s got a long way to go from a football standpoint, but I’m hoping this spring he’s going to get a lot of reps. He’s a willing kid, and I’m hoping he’s going to take that next step for us. I’d like for him to. I’m encouraged by his work ethic and what he’s done. I’m excited about him.”
ON THE COMMON THREAD HE FOUND ON FILM AFTER THE SEASON WHEN BREAKING DOWN THE BIG PLAYS AGAINST THE DEFENSE: “Yeah, the common theme was that we were a hodge-podge at our whip position. As we broke down the plays, 40 percent of the big plays in the run game came from our whip or rover spot. And that has nothing to do with Cav as a coach. We played four whips. We weren’t consistent in our run-fits, weren’t consistent in our leverages and that’s what hurt us. You had just a lot of big plays come from a couple positions, and we’ve got to be better at those spots. Those mostly were outside runs.”
ON HOW MANY OF THE BIG RUNNING PLAYS WERE D-LINE RELATED: “There were chances for guys to make plays inside-out that they just didn’t. You had guys taking bad angles or maybe weren’t athletic enough. There were a couple plays that could’ve been taken care of (up front), but I’m most concerned about plays that got outside where we just overran the ball or had two guys in the same gap or we lost leverage with our contain guy. That, to me, is aggravating. We’ve got to get back to finding the right people, letting them play, and let’s be good at it. We had no production out of our whip position last year. Gouveia got an interception in the ACC championship game, but he was kind of out of position. Bruce Taylor’s the one who made the play. So we’ve just got to be better there.”
ON WHETHER LAST SEASON TICKED HIM OFF AFTER SIX STRAIGHT GREAT DEFENSIVE SEASON: “You go back and look at those incredible years and that was a heckuva run, man. There’s not many people in college football who can do that. You’re going to have a rebuilding year at some point. And I told you guys that in that first meeting (last August). They were picking us to win the ACC, but that was because we had a dynamic quarterback; it wasn’t because of who we returned on defense. And it was because of our reputation and tradition as a program and as coaches, that we’re going to get these guys ready to play.
“Last year for me was very trying. It tested my poise and my patience. But at the same time, I’m a coach and a teacher and we had to really work hard to make sure we taught those kids what it takes to play the game. We had a lot of young kids we were counting on. We didn’t always play the way I wanted us to, but we played hard and we always grew as the game or the season went along. That’s a credit to them and to our coaches. We had a group that had to work at it every day, and they did.
“Maybe I even got to a point myself where you’ve built certain expectations for how good you should be, but there’s also reality. Our expectations are that we’re going to be good every year. Now, are we always going to reach that? Probably not. But we’re always going to demand that they doing things right and play with great effort and great passion. That’s half the battle. You can make up for a lot of mistakes by playing your guts out every snap, laying it on the line for your brother.”
ON LAST YEAR BEING A FLIPPING OF THE SCRIPT WITH THE OFFENSE CARRYING THE DEFENSE AT TIMES: “We’ve relied on great defense to win championships before. Last year, we had a dynamic quarterback that was the difference in our football team. Now we’re going to have a new quarterback, a young quarterback. We’ve got to be better defensively if we expect to contend year in and year out. That’s kind of what we’ve put on our kids this year. We’ve made a point to them. They know. If you ask our kids, each and every one of them will tell you, ‘We have to play better.’ ”
ON HOW MUCH THE ORANGE BOWL BLOWOUT IS SERVING AS FIRE IN EVERYONE’S BELLY: “I don’t know. There were a lot of busted assignments in that game. And it was guys that you wouldn’t expect to bust them. That’s the thing to me that was disappointing. We’d been playing so much better down the stretch. I thought we had really good bowl practices, and then we gave up too many big plays. And all those big plays came down to a couple guys. Maybe that goes back to us as coaches. Maybe our game plan was too complicated. With all (Stanford’s) motions and shifts and all that, we put our kids in a tough situation. But we just didn’t play very well. It was a game of big plays. We had some chances. Jayron dropped a pick-six when it was still a close game ... and the wind went out of our sail. Then we busted three big plays, and it was all veteran guys. That game pissed me off. But we’ll be better. We will be better.”
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