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Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

When Stephan Virgil was asked how many hand signals Virginia Tech’s defense uses, he needed to pause to think. Virgil, the Hokies’ boundary cornerback, gave up and said he could not even fathom a number. Suffice it to say there are a lot.

“It’s sort of like another class out there,” he said, “with all theses hand signals and plays we have.”

Virginia Tech’s breakdowns in its 34-24 loss to Alabama on Saturday highlighted the role of hand signals to make calls on defense and showed what can happen when there are some mistakes interpreting those signs. In front of a boisterous crowd of 74,954 that was so loud it was sometimes difficult to think, Virginia Tech often relied on hand signals to communicate against Alabama but sometimes mixed up its calls. That allowed the Crimson Tide to capitalize on a few big plays.

But the Hokies hope such problems are behind them, and they said they tried to work on communicating better this week in practice. With Lane Stadium providing the familiar setting against Marshall (1-0) on Saturday, the No. 14 Hokies (0-1) hope they will have no such issues.

“We’ve got to get on the same page next week,” linebacker Cody Grimm said of the Marshall game.

Speaking about the Alabama game, Grimm added, “There weren’t a lot of mental mistakes as much as they were not getting in a gap or not getting the call you’re supposed to.”

As the game wore on and the crowd grew louder, the players looked to the coaches on the sideline for their calls. They made the calls using hand signals. In pre-snap situations, the players sometimes communicate to one another through hand signals when noise becomes a factor. A few missed calls – or misinterpreted hand signals – caused trouble for the Hokies.

It was a difficult day for free safety Kam Chancellor. Although he is a leader of the Hokies’ defense, Chancellor made a few mistakes in coverage that Alabama exploited for big gains.

“I feel responsible being his coach that he didn’t play as well,” said Torrian Gray, Virginia Tech's defensive backs coach. “The kid worked all summer and studied all summer to prepare for the season and the game. So I felt bad for him.”

Defensive coordinator Bud Foster later added: “He’s been a hell of a player here, and he’s going to be a hell of player here. You’re going to have a bad day ever now and then. He’s going to come back and play his tail off.”

On a third-and-16 play in the first quarter, Crimson Tide wide receiver Darius Hanks beat Chancellor on a 35-yard pass. The Hokies were running a cover-zero blitz that brought pressure. Chancellor was supposed to leverage Hanks outside because he had no help in the middle, but he did not know the coverage and leveraged Hanks inside. The big gain helped set up an Alabama field goal that put it up 6-0.

In the fourth quarter, Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy connected with wide receiver Marquis Maze on a 48-yard toss. Chancellor said he thought he had help over the top. He appeared to try to notify his teammates of a defensive adjustment before the snap, but the fleet Maze got behind him for the big gain. Alabama scored on the drive to take a 24-17 lead.

“If you get different motions and stuff, there’s different checks,” Chancellor said after the game. “Everybody’s got to make it and all communicate around. Everybody’s got to get the call. If they don’t get the call, it’s a breakdown on defense, and you see what happens.”

By Mark Viera  |  September 10, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
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