What defense will Virginia Tech use against Boston College?
After allowing East Carolina to gain just 83 yards and score three points in the second half of Virginia Tech's 49-27 victory on Saturday, no player or coach on the Hokies' defense could put their finger on exactly why there was such a drastic improvement following a first half that saw the Pirates move the ball at will.
Sophomore Bruce Taylor said Virginia Tech blitzed its linebackers through the middle of the East Carolina offensive line to create more pressure. Senior cornerback Rashad Carmichael had those two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. Sophomore Eddie Whitley believed all of the defense's young starters got used to the game speed in the second half and began diagnosing the Pirates' routes quicker.
To me, though, all of those are products of the adjustments made by defensive coordinator Bud Foster in the week leading up to the game. The Hokies went away from the 4-3 alignment they used the majority of the time in their opening two losses, instead relying on their nickel package that featured two linebackers and an extra defensive back. Often, they even went with three defensive linemen to add another defender in coverage.
All of these moves were undoubtedly in response to the high-powered aerial attack that East Carolina utilizes. But with the Hokies about to face Boston College running back Montel Harris and the Eagles' powerful offensive line, there is a big question that must be asked:
Given the success the Hokies had in the second half, should they continue to play these nickel and three-linemen sets or return to a more traditional base scheme now that they'll be taking on a more traditional offense?
"As well as we did in the nickel, especially in the second half, that’s something we’re gonna start to do more of," said redshirt freshman Antone Exum this week.
The key player in all this is Exum. His presence in the starting lineup allowed Whitley to play whip linebacker. Exum, meanwhile, made his first-ever collegiate start at Whitley's free safety spot and did not seem out of place at all.
In fact, Exum graded out better than any other Virginia Tech defender in the East Carolina game, finishing with nine solo tackles and six more assists. One of the reasons Exum had been unable to get much playing time in the first two games this season was his inexperience at making defensive calls from the free safety position. But with Whitley still in the game, he was able to handle those responsibilities while Exum could just focus on being a playmaker.
Exum "is not ready to make the calls, but just letting him turn loose and play, he was impressive,” secondary coach Torian Gray said. "He’s big time at the point of attack, meaning when he had a play opportunity, he brought guys down."
Here's the dilemma facing Foster and his staff. Exum showed last Saturday he is one of the team's top 11 defensive players and needs to be on the field despite his relative inexperience. But facing the ACC's leading rusher, can the Hokies get away with playing five defensive backs again?
What's my take? I think you have to start Exum at free safety and Whitley at whip linebacker again after how well Exum played against the Pirates. Exum essentially took the spot of linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, who played just nine snaps against East Carolina after struggling as a starter in the first two games this season.
And frankly, by doing this again, the Hokies aren't actually losing any size in which to combat the Eagles massive offensive line. Though Gouveia-Winslow plays more like a traditional outside linebacker, he actually weighs less (6 feet 2, 207 pounds) than Exum, who's listed at 6 feet, 217 pounds.
I also think this week's decision to give true freshman Chase Williams another chance to play at outside linebacker this season does not bode well for Gouveia-Winslow or Lyndell Gibson, who have both been underwhelming thus far. The Hokies need more consistency at linebacker since they're using a defensive line rotation that relies on one veteran (senior John Graves), a converted tight end (senior Chris Drager), two first-year starters (sophomore Antoine Hopkins and senior Steven Friday), and two freshmen (Derrick Hopkins and J.R. Collins). Those linebacker blizes that were dialed up in the second half were a direct result of the defensive line's inability to muster a consistent pass rush.
It seems increasingly clear that Foster has realized he must lean on his secondary, which features two seniors and several emerging playmakers like Whitley and Exum. And though conventional wisdom says Foster should go with more of a base look on Saturday, my guess is he continues to play to his strength.
| September 23, 2010; 10:38 AM ET
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