Virginia Tech’s nickel package has been on the money this season


Sophomore cornerback Kyle Fuller has helped Virginia Tech’s nickel defense get off to a strong start this season. The first-year starter was graded higher by his coaches than any other defender in the Hokies’ 17-10 win over East Carolina. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 14, 2011

After getting beat by his receiver in the first half Saturday, Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller knew East Carolina would try the same play again. So when the Pirates lined up with three wide receivers midway through the third quarter and Lance Lewis made a quick cut toward the middle of the field, “I just made a break,” Fuller said Tuesday.

The sophomore ended up with his first career interception on the play, and though Fuller’s natural instincts were on full display, he admits the feat was only possible because of experience.

“I don’t know if it would have been that easy last season,” said Fuller, a first-year starter who was graded higher by his coaches than any other Virginia Tech defender in the 17-10 win. “That experience helped me a lot. I was able to correct that and come back and make that play.”

Fuller’s progress is notable because it mirrors that of the entire defense. East Carolina’s 112 total yards on Saturday tied for the fewest Virginia Tech has allowed since a win over Duke on Sept. 10, 2005.

What’s more significant, though, is that the Hokies accomplished the feat almost exclusively using their nickel package. It’s a scheme defensive coordinator Bud Foster disavowed this offseason after Virginia Tech was forced to use it often in 2010, when it finished 52nd in the country in yards allowed per game.

But with quick-strike spread offenses becoming the norm instead of a novelty, Foster is being forced to adapt his scheme like never before.

“We use the term to the kids: ‘It’s basketball on grass,’ ” said Foster, whose unit faces its third straight game against a spread offense when Arkansas State visits Lane Stadium on Saturday. “It’s like the four corners. They’re spreading you out and getting the ball to a guy who can get a one-on-one matchup. All of a sudden you miss a tackle, there’s a big play. You’ve got to adjust to what they’re doing.”

Foster’s seminal moment came in the 2003 Insight Bowl, when California quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed 27 of 35 passes for 394 yards and two touchdowns against the Hokies in a 52-49 Golden Bears victory. It’s no coincidence Foster debuted his nickel package — with five defensive backs on the field — the next season.

Gradually it has become a fixture of Foster’s game plan, a development that defensive backs coach Torrian Gray laughs at now. He was a safety for Foster’s first defense at Virginia Tech and remembers how the Hokies almost always had eight men in the box, leaving the secondary without a safety net.

“Coach, he almost hated to take a [linebacker] off the field,” said Gray, who admitted he would have preferred to play for Foster now than when he did (1992-96). “But with four receivers . . . he’s been more open to it.”

Last season, though, Foster thought he relied on the nickel package too much as a means of covering up for deficiencies at the whip linebacker position, which is called upon to provide pass coverage.

With so many players defending the pass, the Hokies’ run defense suffered and they didn’t blitz as effectively, both of which convinced Foster that he must use his base 4-3 package more often this season.

Which makes Saturday’s performance all the more impressive. The Pirates, who averaged 37 points per game last year, had minus-15 rushing yards and senior quarterback Dominique Davis finished with the worst passing statistics of his career. Whip linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow played just four defensive snaps, and with minimal blitzing, Virginia Tech was still able to sack Davis five times.

A pleasant development for the Hokies has been the seamless transition enjoyed by the defense’s six new starters. All but one received significant playing time in a reserve role a year ago, and the coaching staff has raved about how they’ve increased the overall speed of the entire unit.

Foster said his expectations were to perform well early in the season, but he’s been impressed that “it’s what the kids expected.” The swagger, though, isn’t quite back yet. It seems in addition to figuring out how to succeed in the nickel, these Hokies have learned two games don’t make a season.

“We’re still a long ways away,” said senior Cris Hill, the team’s extra cornerback in nickel coverage. “East Carolina game was just a starting point of getting back to that old defense Blacksburg is used to.”

Mark Giannotto covers high school sports for The Washington Post.
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