The blame game is no fun – especially for the guy getting blamed – but sometimes the facts are just inescapable. From 2004 to 2009, six straight seasons, Virginia Tech finished the season ranked no worse than 12th nationally in total defense. Then came 2010. The Hokies plummeted to 52nd.
So what happened? Well, for the first time in seven years, Tech had a young guy who wasn’t quite ready to play at the all-important whip linebacker spot. Jeron Gouveia-Winslow was a redshirt sophomore who’d played only 35 snaps and recorded three tackles in his college career before taking over at whip last season.
Alonzo Tweedy, also a redshirt sophomore in 2010, was probably more prepared for the job. He’s one of the fastest players on the roster and had been the Hokies’ special teams ace in 2009, recording 24 tackles – most of them the open-field variety that are such a big part of playing that whip spot. But Tweedy suffered a severe groin pull in August (I’ll try not to barf as I remind you that some of his bone flaked off in that region ... so it wasn’t a run-of-the-mill groin pull) and he was never able to challenge Gouveia-Winslow for the spot.
The season started and Tech’s new guy struggled right away. He was beaten on a couple of key pass plays in the season opener against Boise State, then whiffed on critical tackles in a stunning loss to James Madison the next week. It became quickly apparent that Gouveia-Winslow was just not quite ready for prime time. That was bad news for the Hokies, because the whip is often an “attack” position for Tech, a “playmaking spot” as defensive coordinator Bud Foster likes to say.
When Gouveia-Winslow struggled, a series of dominoes fell. Foster started tinkering to mask the deficiency at whip. He tried nickel packages that relied heavily on redshirt freshman safety Antone Exum and true freshman cornerback Kyle Fuller – both talented guys, playmakers at times, but still young fellows who were far from perfect (or ready to play that much). While most of the Hokies’ defensive starters played 700-plus snaps last season, not counting the bowl game, Gouveia-Winslow played just 373, starting only six games. Exum had to play 486 snaps and Fuller, fresh out of high school, played 417.
“We were a hodge-podge,” Foster said early this spring, “and we played like it.”
Starting free safety Eddie Whitley, who sometimes had to play a version of the whip in Tech’s nickel packages last season, admits now that all the tinkering sometimes threw off his game.
“I played free safety one play, then I’ve got to transform and get in nickel the next play,” he said. “I’m thinking when I’m playing and I’m not going full-speed like I want to, because I’m changing my responsibilities and trying to remember the alignments and assignments. It was difficult.”
It was clearly a huge point of emphasis this spring, then, to find a competent player at whip, allowing Tech to get back to playing its traditional defense and letting Foster return to calling games the way he likes.
“It’s a comfort thing,” new whips coach Cornell Brown said. “Bud knows what he wants and expects from the position. When he doesn’t like what he sees, he has to compensate and cover up some blemishes. I know when Bud’s at ease, this defense and this team is at ease. Then Bud can be the real factor that he is. And he is a factor. Most people game-plan players, but you’ve got to game-plan Bud. When he feels confident in his guys to cut them lose, he’s very dangerous on the sideline in control of all that. For me, it’s exciting to bring a little security to that.”
That’s exactly what Brown and his whip linebackers did this spring. Whether motivated by all the chatter about last year’s struggles and the fact that Foster moved redshirt freshmen Nick Dew and Dominique Patterson to whip to challenge for the job, or perhaps just as a product of more experience, Gouveia-Winslow looked like a different player over the last month. Likewise, finally healed from his groin injury, Tweedy was able to compete and made a major push for the starting job.
Gouveia-Winslow had 13 tackles, two for loss, one sack, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery in three mini-scrimmages and three full scrimmages this spring. Tweedy had 15 tackles, two for loss, one sack and one pass breakup. That’s pretty solid production from the position.
Consider that in 14 games combined last season, Gouveia-Winslow and Tweedy combined for 57 tackles, one for loss, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, one fumble recovery and one breakup. In spring scrimmages, which probably amount to the number of snaps in roughly 4.5 real games, they combined for 28 tackles, four for loss, two sacks, two breakups and one fumble recovery.
“Being that coming into the spring we were the question mark of the defense, I think those guys really stepped up and showed they can be players and, given the opportunity, they can help the defense be better,” Brown said. “We had to prove to ourselves that we’re a solid group. The top two guys have played, so the biggest thing for them was to get out there and gain confidence in their abilities. Sometimes you lose that when you don’t get the chance to be on the field. As spring went along, these guys got confident. They feel like they can be an asset now instead of a liability.”
Brown said Gouveia-Winslow exited spring practice No. 1 on the depth chart with Tweedy hot on his heels at No. 2 and “another guy who you feel comfortable having on the field.” Gouveia-Winslow is more fundamentally sound and Tweedy is faster and more athletic. “You’d like to blend them both together and have a great, great player,” Brown said, “but we have two solid players now and we can use each of their skill sets to help us.”
If that’s true, the entire defense will be better. Those who were on the practice field every day this spring believe it has already given the Hokies a boost. Whitley said he felt a noticeable difference with the whip linebacker on the field – and playing competently – for every snap. Tech intentionally did not play any nickel this spring.
“When we have the whip, you can just concentrate on your own responsibilities,” Whitley said. “Now that everybody’s on the field at the same time, all the time, and we’re not subbing anybody out, we’re playing a lot faster. Everybody knows their responsibility. You know what you’ve got to do. This is your position and you don’t have to worry about nobody else. And we’re just playing ball, flying around.”
Said Brown: “When you’re confident in all 11, when you trust everyone with you, now you’re a unit. A real unit.”
Said Foster: “By having a whip in there all the time, we can run more of our defense and do some things we like to do.”
Now here’s what Brown had to say about each of his top four whip linebackers after evaluating them for 15 spring practices ...
GOUVEIA-WINSLOW: “He made the most strides in simply being a solid player, making the play when he had the chance, showing he’s able to make tackles in space, bring down big guys in the open field. He improved his one-on-one coverage ability, which helps within our defense and what we like to do. He really is a student of the game and he was finally able to go out and show that. He gives coach Foster and I a vote of confidence in him playing that position.”
TWEEDY: “He’s a guy that has all the athletic ability in the world, can fly around the field. The biggest question was whether he could use it, could he put all that ability in the right place? This spring, he did that. He put some havoc on the quarterback, made some plays, forced fumbles. He did show some of that this spring. There’s still some things we’re cleaning up with both those guys, but they both showed they’re capable. Tweedy made some nice strides.”
DEW: “He’s a young guy, still learning the position and still learning the defense and what it takes to play at this level. There were a lot of ups and downs with him, but he improved by the end of the spring. He’s better than when we started. The young guys haven’t played in a game since high school, so he needed to get out there and get in the mix. We’re excited about his ability and where his potential could take him.”
PATTERSON: “He has the body type you want out of the position: a thick, solid kid, a guy who could probably be an anchor against the run for us. But he’s another young guy who’s learning the position. His brained tied his feet up some, which didn’t let him cut loose. That was a little deterrent for him and caused him to play a lot slower than we’d like him to play. But he had a great spring game, his best scrimmage all year. He ended on a good note, and we always like to see that.”
And let’s give the last word on the whips to Gouveia-Winslow, who deserves a tip of the cap for the way he handled last season’s adversity (with impressive grace and maturity) and for refusing to surrender his spot even when it seemed like Tech was giving the other three whips every opportunity to steal it ...
ON THE FIRST-TEAM DEFENSE THIS SPRING: “The ones are solid. When we’re all together ... I feel like we’re on point. We’re comfortable. The chemistry’s right there. Everyone’s confident and I just feel like we’re playing well together.”
ON BEING MOTIVATED BY THE TALK ABOUT WHIP BEING A WEAKNESS LAST SEASON: “It was definitely a challenge. You want to have the coaches’ confidence in you. So this spring, I came in with the mentality that I’ve got to fight for my spot. I take that mentality every day. I took it as a challenge and it motivated me to do better and I’ve been trying to get better every day. I feel like I’ve had a good spring, been making plays, been confident.”
ON WHERE HE’S IMPROVED THE MOST: “I guess just making the play when I’m supposed to, being solid tackling, flying around and being more aggressive. I feel like I’ve improved and it’s shown this spring throughout, stayed consistent. I always made progress every day. I don’t think I jumped back at all.”
ON WHETHER HE TALKED TO ANYONE AFTER LAST SEASON’S STRUGGLES TO GET THROUGH IT, PAST IT: “There wasn’t anyone in particular, just family support. Everybody, my friends and stuff, said, ‘Keep working hard.’ With all the questions at whip, everybody said, ‘Fight for that spot.’ Everyone’s really excited about me this spring, hearing how I was doing well and making plays.”
ON THE MENTAL SIDE OF THE GAME THIS SPRING: “Everything’s a lot slower, not too sporadic, where you’re out there and your head’s all over the place like, ‘What do I do? What do I do?’ I get out there and make my reads, feel confident in my calls and go from there. It’s really simple now. The more you can make it simpler, it makes it that much easier.”
One last piece of bonus blog. While I had Brown on the phone, I thought I’d get his take on the Hokies’ young defensive linemen (their three new starters up front are all sophomores) since he’s been helping a little bit with the line. Keep in mind that Brown is a former national defensive player of the year at Tech, spent seven years in the NFL and was a defensive line coach in both the CFL and NFL Europe. Now listen to what he had to say about one of the Hokies’ new starting ends:
“Seeing James Gayle, there’s no question that guy came out determined and he left no doubt in anybody that saw him in practice. There’s not many people who do what you saw him do this spring. He’s a pleasure to watch. He makes the other ends want to be better and he makes your offensive tackles better every day in practice. It’s easy as a coach to point to a guy like that and say, ‘Follow that lead.’ He’s practicing like there’s a game tomorrow.
“The guy has been almost unblockable all spring. The only thing left is just doing it under the lights when everybody’s watching, but it’s hard to say when you’ve seen him do what he’s doing, that he won’t be a star. You see star written all over him. It’s just how big a star does he want to be.”
That’s pretty big praise for Gayle, who won Tech’s defensive spring MVP award after racking up seven tackles for loss, including six sacks, in scrimmages. I think it’s fair to predict that the Hokies will finish higher than 52nd nationally in total defense this fall. Just a hunch.
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