We all know the basic answer to this year’s woes in the secondary: the defenders were young and in new positions, and they played their hardest teams up front. With the season over, I thought it’d be a good time to dig into those answers.
First, we can’t discount the problem of young players in new positions. The schematic complexity of secondary play is underrated. On every run and screen play each defender in the secondary has a specific assignment that varies by position, play, and what the offense does. No one just flies to the ball willy nilly. Foster’s safeties have a more involved role than most, often having gap/route assignments that require instant decision making. Detrick Bonner, for example, got victimized a few times by watching the backfield too long and letting receivers run by him. He would’ve had fewer moments like that in a more typical defense, and he’ll have fewer of them in the future with a season under his belt.
Defending the pass is even more complicated. It’s not like the old days where a zone defender would always sit in his zone and read the QB, and a man defender would always shadow one clearly defined receiver. At the very least, every college defense has rules for how to squeeze zones down and pick up defenders running through them, and every college defense has rules on how to seamlessly switch man-defense assignments versus motioning and crossing receivers.
We all know that Bud Foster doesn’t run a “at the very least” scheme. He requires his defenders to recognize and react to various combinations of routes, run exotic blitzes (and cover behind those blitzes with little or no support or with rotating coverages), and routinely alter assignments on the fly. That last one tripped up Kyle Fuller and the safeties quite a bit: more than a few times receivers got turned loose because no one could decide who had responsibility for deep routes.
This is all hard enough to learn on its own, but Tech’s schedule (and its own offense) presented an extra complication: rather than having an off-season and late summer to hone the basics, Tech played a host of oddball offenses at the beginning of the season. It started with the Hokies’ own protean spread-option/pro/pistol morass in the off-season, and continued with Georgia Tech, UNC, Duke, Clemson, and Cinci and their various takes on spread-option systems.
Rather than play things conservatively, Foster schemed aggressively against each of these teams and their unique styles. This was a big risk on Foster’s part, since his secondary wasn’t just young, but had safeties at corner and corners at safety. Compare the age and experience of this year’s DB’s with the crew we started against Cinci in the Orange Bowl and you’ll see the difference in both age and positional experience. Against these newfangled teams, this year’s secondary players learned a host of tweaks and outright scheme changes that undid quite a bit of what we’ve come to know as the Hokie defense.
For the first time in a long time, Tech’s defensive coaches didn’t beat their competition in practice and overcome their team’s steep learning curve. Tech’s secondary was slow to adopt the changes and suffered for it. Even worse, Pittsburgh and Miami gashed Tech with things the Hokies usually smear, but didn’t start defending well until the Florida State game. A lot of the mental errors made this year should be largely absent by next. I’m not saying Tech will hold UNC under 30, but it should keep them from hitting 48. I also think it’ll be good for the defense in the long run to have had an “experimental” season during a down year, as opposed to next season when the offense will likely be retooled. And as slim as Tech’s odds of winning are, scheduling Alabama to start the year should help VT’s defense in two major ways: it’ll focus them on a marquee opponent while also giving them a meat-and-potatoes offense to prep for at the beginning of the year.
Of course, the elephant in the room is that the teams that beat Tech brought more than scheme issues. Most of them had more on-field talent than in years prior. The Hokies, meanwhile, seem fairly stagnant on the talent front, and lacking the type of players needed to run Foster’s latest defensive revisions to beat the option game. In the secondary, this means corners and safeties who can play isolated man coverage like it’s the NFL in the 80’s. Foster was happier than ever to leave guys on islands just so he could bring numbers to stop the option, though he didn’t have the front seven to give Exum freedom to learn the position or protect Fuller when he was playing through injury.
The talent problem won’t be solved by next year, though some luck with injuries will go a long way towards lessening it. Also helpful is a much more favorable overall schedule, with tougher opponents at home or simply off the list. I don’t think next year will hearken back to the Terrordome days, but for the secondary players it should be a much better year. Beyond that, though, some recruiting needs to be done if Foster’s squad hopes to keep pace with the offenses of Clemson, Florida State, and potential opponents in major bowls.