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Virginia Tech’s Defense Hopes to Just Hold it Together

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Playoff football begins now

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Alright, this is going to be a far shorter and shallower look into the Virginia Tech defense than the usual weekly column. Both because it’s late in what has been a busy work week for yours truly, and because the Hokie defense is completely directionless.

You almost never see coaches make even the slightest underhanded remarks about opponent schemes or personnel unless they’re politely commiserating injury contingency plans. This week Tony Elliott essentially did both commiserate and let slip his pity — during a game week no less — regarding the VT defense, and that should tell you all you need to know about the unit tasked with slowing Angry Clemson.

Virginia Tech is indeed down a few key players on Saturday, but their calls have been all over the map to the point where it isn’t hyperbole at all for Elliott to even nicely point out he hasn’t gleaned an identity from studying them. I could show you obligatory film of the random soft coverages and blitzes through which they churn, but there are few trends or exotic schemes which offer any more than a chance for me to be further derisive toward the ACC at large. I have no desire to do that to anyone on the 2020 schedule but Notre Dame.

Virginia Tech was a contrarian pick to sneak into the top-4 of the ACC behind a very good run game and a sneaky good defense, headlined by a secondary which features no doubt first-round cornerback Caleb Farley. 2020 has treated Justin Fuente worse than perhaps any still-employed head coach except Mike Norvell, though, and Farley opted out well before the season began. This absolutely crippled what first-year coordinator Justin Hamilton envisioned in this unit. Never did he have realistic expectations of mirroring the aggressive (and perhaps outdated) 4-4 type defenses Bud Foster threw at everyone, but neither did he expect to resort to throwing calls at a wall to see what stuck.

Virginia Tech still runs their classic 4-down, 1-gap front built on aggressive line penetration, but long gone are the days where downhill linebackers and a hybrid strong safety presented an 8-man box bent on forcing quarterbacks to beat tight man coverage or jailbreak blitzes. Everywhere but in that 4-down front, this is a more cautious defense both because of the personnel losses (mainly Farley) and because unathletic linebackers must be protected.

This is an almost exclusively zone coverage defense now, but not because it disguises pressures and fire zones like Brent Venables or Clark Lea at Notre Dame; it is your classic, uninspired, Vic Koenning-patented bend but don’t break defense. This is absolute suicide against Trevor Lawrence, who was already brilliant against zone before Cornell Powell finally gave the offense a downfield man-beater threat in the last few games. There’s mainly soft cover 4 (unlike Pitt’s aggressive cover 4 which often becomes cover 0) with the occasional cover 3 blitz when Hamilton wants to try and stick to pedigree. VT keeps everything in front of them and hopes their good defensive ends can get home every now and then.

VT gave up 47 points to the same Pitt offense Clemson just obliterated in its last time out. That’s the game most worth diving into, both because Clemson and VT share a common most recent opponent, and because Clemson and Pitt share similar strengths in the pass game versus relative weaknesses in the run game (yes I know Clemson looked much better on the ground than expected last week but Travis Etienne doesn’t even have 700 yards rushing).

I truly intended to throw some film from Pitt into this space, but again, I’m past deadline time and it’s just Pickett throwing into soft underneath cover 4 zones; rinse and repeat with the occasional cover 3 blitz. If not for Fuente’s hefty buyout amidst a pandemic, he would be absolute toast. If only South Carolina treated Will Muschamp’s buyout with such reverence.

Speaking of which, I’m torn on wanting VT to steal Shane Beamer from under South Carolina’s nose, but as long as the Gamecocks don’t manage to hire Billy Napier I’m content with them landing Beamer. In their best case, he finds some success using the Dabo model. In the worst, well, the status quo happily remains.

Anyway, this game won’t be interesting for long except to we sadists who thirst for 2nd-quarter garbage time. Etienne can destroy this defense on the edge, especially likely without headlining DE Emmanuel Belmar. It’s amazing to remember Clemson wanted weakside LB Dax Hollifield, but then again Clemson hasn’t exactly had the quickest athletes at inside linebacker in the Venables era. This game is only close if Lawrence has uncharacteristic turnovers or Hendon Hooker runs around a finally healthy Clemson defense — a much more difficult task now than a month ago.

Spoiler alert: nah

Clemson 48, Virginia Tech 10