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Posted at 12:32 PM ET, 09/06/2011

Virginia Tech’s nickel defense makes its return

It would seem Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster faces a dilemma of sorts this week with his unit getting set to face East Carolina’s pass-happy Air Raid offense. Foster spent all offseason talking about how he wanted to use his base defense more often, but the Hokies played their nickel package almost exclusively in last year’s 49-27 victory over the Pirates.

In fact, Foster shuffled his starting lineup for that game, inserting then-redshirt freshman Antone Exum into the lineup and moving safety Eddie Whitley to whip linebacker for a five defensive back look, something that would become a trend as the year went along. And if Foster’s comments Monday were any indication, expect more of the same this weekend despite his preseason rhetoric.

“That’s not a negative thing, playing nickel,” said Foster, who added that Virginia Tech played a decent amount of nickel in its season-opening win over Appalachian State. “It just gives us the best matchups that we can have when we’re on the field.”

You’ll remember even with all those defensive backs, East Carolina had no trouble moving the ball in the first half last year. At halftime, the Pirates led Virginia Tech, 24-21, and quarterback Dominique Davis had completed 19 of his 25 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown.

In the second half, though, the Hokies defense allowed just three points, gave up only 83 yards and forced Davis to throw two interceptions. “We made him hold the ball a little bit when they wanted to get rid of the ball a little quicker,” according to Foster.

Foster indicated Monday the Hokies were caught off guard at first by the pace of East Carolina’s no huddle offense, the result of game film that cut out the time between snaps. So this week Foster is having his defense practice against two separate offensive groups. As soon as the defense stops one play, another group of scout team players is already back at the line of scrimmage ready with a new play to run.

LSU used this “tempo drill” as a way to prepare for its season-opening win over Oregon, but Foster said he has used this approach in the past.

“This offense, to me, is very scary,” he said. “There’s always big play potential but it doesn’t have to be thrown down the field. It can be dinks and dunks, and because of the space they’re creating, it can turn into big plays.”

East Carolina finished with the No. 8 passing offense in the country in 2010. Its Air Raid offense is a variation of what former Texas Tech Coach Mike Leach utilized – lots of short-to-medium range passing routes using four wide receiver sets. East Carolina Coach Ruffin McNeill, who was previously the defensive coordinator at Texas Tech, hired 28-year-old Leach disciple Lincoln Riley as his offensive coordinator in Greenville, N.C., before last season.

In 2010 the Pirates ran 990 plays and threw the ball close to 64 percent of the time in 13 games. To combat this, Foster said the Hokies will also turn to their “30 package,” which involves just three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.

“For a confident group like ourselves, we feel like this is an opportunity to make plays,” said Exum, now a redshirt sophomore firmly entrenched as the starting free safety. “The more times they want to put it in the air, the more opportunities that we have for plays to be made … So we get real excited and we take it as a personal challenge when a team wants to put the ball in the air over 30 times a game.”

Even though Foster hasn’t told his players exactly what defense they’ll use this week, my guess is back-up cornerbacks Cris Hill and Detrick Bonner will figure heavily into the game plan since starter Kyle Fuller usually plays against the slot receiver when the Hokies are in nickel coverage. Linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, meanwhile, will likely be de-emphasized since he struggles in man coverage.

And if last year’s win means anything, Exum will play a key role. His first-career start came against East Carolina in 2010, and he didn’t disappoint. He had nine solo tackles, five more assisted tackles and graded out higher than any other Virginia Tech defender.

Exum “has tremendous man-to-man coverage skills, and he’s athletically gifted,” Whitley said. “These are the types of games where we need him to step up and do his thing. It’s gonna be a lot of running around this weekend, but we have enough talent that we can stop them.”. . .

As far as the Hokies’ season-opening win, Foster said he came away impressed with how his first unit performed after watching the game film, particularly cornerback Kyle Fuller and linebackers Tariq Edwards and Bruce Taylor.

Both Edwards and Taylor finished with five tackles, tied for the most by any Virginia Tech defensive player this past Saturday. Fuller finished with four tackles and showed he could be an effective blitzer off the edge.

Taylor “did an outstanding job the other day kind of orchestrating the front because they went into some empty formations, and we had certain checks that we were going to, and they did a couple little things that were different formations that we had to make a little adjustment to,” Foster said.

“That’s where Tariq can get better . . . but that just comes with more repetitions and understanding and I think you’ll see him grow and continue to develop as a linebacker. I think he’s got a chance to be a really good football player for us.”

Foster said by his count Appalachian State averaged just under 2.5 yards per snap aside from three big plays that came with mostly reserves on the field for Virginia Tech’s defense.

By Mark Giannotto  |  12:32 PM ET, 09/06/2011

 
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