It only takes a quick peek at the statistics to realize the 2010 version of Virginia Tech’s defense was an anomaly when compared with the units that helped catapult the Hokies football program to national significance in recent years.
After six-consecutive years ranked amongst the top 12 nationally in terms of total defense, Virginia Tech finished the year 52nd in that category, while allowing opponents to average close to 34 points per game. That, though, doesn’t even include the worst rushing defense during Bud Foster’s 15-year tenure as defensive coordinator.
But as senior safety Eddie Whitley explained Sunday during the ACC’s annual football kickoff in Pinehurst, N.C., the deviation from the norm even extended to Foster’s approach on the sidelines and in the meeting room. It seems Foster curbed his trademark intensity in favor of lightening the psychological load on his youngest players.
“Last year he’d be a little bit lenient on some guys because they had some mistakes. He didn’t want to jump on them so their head won’t be in the game,” Whitley said. “This year, everybody’s experienced so there’s gonna be a lot more pressure and he’ll be a lot harder on us,”
The Hokies actually return just five starters on defense, but Whitley was quick to point out that many of the players moving into the starting lineup — like defensive end James Gayle, cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Antone Exum -- saw significant action in reserve roles in 2010.
Whitley believes some of the biggest issues a year ago, especially in the Orange Bowl loss last January, came from communication breakdowns that caused open gaps that were “just gushing.” He even conceded that the Stanford schemes “confused us pretty good,” even though he believes the Hokies had equivalent talent on the field.
It probably didn’t help that throughout the season the Hokies were forced to play a ton of nickel coverage, after not practicing it much during fall training camp, because Foster lost confidence in starting whip linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow.
The changes forced Whitley, normally a free safety, to take over Gouveia-Winslow’s whip duties. In the meantime Exum, then just a redshirt freshman, was thrust into the free safety position, even though his relative inexperience meant he was relying on Whitley for help identifying coverages and routes.
“I hope we can just stay in base defense and just play ball like we usually do,” Whitley said.
Foster echoed those sentiments this spring. And with some more battle-tested parts at his disposal, don’t be surprised if Foster flashes some of that inner fire that has become a thing of legend in Blacksburg.
“I don’t know who was more [ticked] — me or him,” said Whitley, specifically referencing the Orange Bowl. “It’s a different intensity now that everyone’s experienced. I like that.”