Virginia Tech’s defensive players had just shuttled through the sort of tackling drills that are usually reserved for the first days of training camp when defensive coordinator Bud Foster addressed the entire unit Tuesday evening.
“From here on out,” he said. “We’re evaluating effort.”
Foster had directed the drills himself to begin practice, and secondary coach Torrian Gray had his own station for open-field form tackling. Defensive line coach Charley Wiles worked with players on shedding blocks during a mat drill.
They had done this before, Gray would say later, but not this season.
Foster then proceeded to call out specific players for “loafs” during Virginia Tech’s 48-34 loss at North Carolina on Saturday, one of the worst statistical (and tackling) performances that one of Foster’s units has ever delivered. The entire team did up-downs and ran sprints for each player’s mistake.
“We need the intensity level to be ratcheted up obviously,” Gray said. “We wouldn’t be putting the emphasis on the start of practice like we’re doing if we were satisfied with the way we’re playing overall right now. . . . Normally when we do, that next game our execution and fundamentals are a lot better.”
It certainly isn’t status quo in Blacksburg these days, particularly for a battle-tested defense that is picking up the pieces after being shredded three times in the past four games. The blame has largely been directed toward sloppy tackling and poor leverage, so on Tuesday there was more hitting than ever.
The back-to-the basics mentality was welcomed by all.
“The coaches are more strict, like, ‘Y’all need to get this done,’ ” safety Detrick Bonner said. “Before I feel like it was a little lackadaisical in practice. We just weren’t as sharp as we always are. I feel like today we were very sharp. I think we’re gonna bounce back.”
Based on Saturday, though, Virginia Tech has a lot of work ahead in order to return to the level it performed at a year ago. Let’s take stock after a particularly bad showing against the Tar Heels.
Position coach Charley Wiles knows his troops could be doing more. Though they’ve put pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year, the Hokies have just eight sacks through six games.
After the North Carolina loss, Foster and defensive end James Gayle complained that the Tar Heels’ offensive line got away with some uncalled holding penalties. On Tuesday, Wiles revealed the Hokies sent four or five plays in the ACC office and the league agreed penalties should have been called.
But Wiles also expects more from a defensive line that was billed as the strength of this defense in the preseason. The only player he singled out for praise Tuesday was Gayle.
“I thought inside we’ve just got to get off more blocks. We’ve got to pitch more of a fit,” Wiles said. “I don’t think there was a bunch of loafs necessarily, but just don’t be content with just winning your gap. We’ve got to chase it and fight. We’re fighting for our lives, man, and you’ve got to play like that every play.
At defensive tackle, Wiles conceded sophomore Luther Maddy’s play been hampered by an ankle injury and senior Antoine Hopkins was taking first-team snaps during Tuesday’s practice. “Since Georgia Tech, I haven’t seen the same guy,” Wiles said of Maddy.
To help address the issues inside, the Hokies used four defensive ends at times in Saturday’s game, with redshirt junior J.R. Collins and sophomore Corey Marshall at defensive tackle and redshirt freshman Dadi Nicolas and Gayle on the edge. Wiles said the team plans on utilizing that lineup more in the future because of their ability to make plays on the perimeter.
Virginia Tech’s defensive backfield remains a work in progress, and because of its struggles, it appears the Hokies are trying to find a way to de-emphasize their nickel package. Gray admitted Tuesday the team also lacks a true third cornerback this year after being able to rely on senior Cris Hill last season.
Hill’s presence allowed cornerback Kyle Fuller to man the nickel position, where he excelled. They’ve played it so much of late, Bonner said, that he thinks the only game where he has actually played safety the entire time came against Austin Peay last month. And it’s the defensive backs that have missed the most tackles.
“It’s very disappointing,” Bonner said. “I feel like we’re letting the previous players down. Our previous DBs were able to come up, tackle, be more physical. We let them down and we’ve got to get better with it.”
It doesn’t help that Fuller is still bothered by the shoulder injury he suffered at Pittsburgh last month, and has given up completions on the outside several times the past two games.
“He hasn’t been the Kyle Fuller that I expect to play on a consistent level right now,” Gray said.
It seems unlikely the defense will get any reinforcements from redshirt junior Tariq Edwards this Saturday. He participated without restrictions in practice Tuesday, but Edwards has some hurdles to clear before returning to the starting lineup. Linebacker Bruce Taylor said his teammate still has a limp and is struggling with slowing down after he gets to full speed.
The Hokies could use Edwards, though. Taylor and middle linebacker Jack Tyler have rarely come off the field of late. But Taylor said the plan this week is to simplify the defense in order to minimize the mistakes. Though the Hokies brought back nine starters from last year’s defense, Taylor pointed out he’s one of several returners playing a new position this season.
“It’s the same defense, but when you’re in a different spot, it makes a complete difference,” Taylor said. “Guys aren’t as emotional as I think they should be because they’re thinking too much about what they need to do and what’s going on. . . . I think simplifying it definitely helps and you just have to pin your ears back and go play rather than worrying about where am I going. You know where you’re going so you can go there a little faster.”