As he begins his 18th season as the defensive coordinator at Virginia Tech, Bud Foster knows his 2012 group should be among the best in the ACC, if not the country. And with nine starters returning from a 2011 unit that finished 10th in the country in total defense and seventh nationally in scoring defense, it’s easy to see why Foster is confident that can happen. But if you know Foster and are aware of his drive and competitive fire, you know that his mantra for this spring is to raise the level of Tech’s defense to an even higher level.
“We want to continue to improve and develop the path to the kind of defense we want to be around here,” Foster said of his spring football goals. “We want to create depth. We did that unintentionally last year with guys stepping up when we had the injuries – and being impact players, which I was pleased and impressed with.”
Injuries plagued the 2011 Tech defense, as key players like tackle Antoine Hopkins, and linebackers Bruce Taylor and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow were lost for the season. The net result: since younger players, including several freshmen, received unexpected major playing time in 2011, Foster has more players who have logged more significant minutes, particularly up front, than perhaps any defense he’s had.
“We have a lot of guys who played a lot up front, but my biggest concern is developing our secondary,” Foster said. “We lost Eddie Whitley and Jayron Hosley. Cris Hill had an outstanding year, too, in our nickel package.”
So cornerback and free safety are the biggest areas of concern heading into the spring. Where Kyle Fuller plays this fall will be interesting to watch, too.
“That’s the $100 question,” Foster said. “Kyle is an outstanding player. He was our most valuable defensive player all the way around. He played so many positions and had such a significant role in our success.”
“We need to find a free safety,” Foster continued. “Our linebackers call the defense, but the free safety calls the checks.
“But I’ll tell you this: you get beat quickest at corner. We put our guys on an island. We need to be good there first. So as for Kyle, he’s going to be a cornerback. He’s going to be a safety. He’s going be a nickel. That position improved with him there. But we need to create depth because, if we start him at corner and move him to nickel, we’ll need depth.”
It’s along the defensive line and at the linebacker spots where Foster and Tech fans are most excited. The Hokies return familiar, experienced names throughout the defense at those positions. And Foster hopes to drive that group to greater heights this spring.
“Up front, we need to take that next step,” Foster said. “I’m going to really challenge our kids this spring. You talk about guys like James Gayle, Antoine Hopkins, J.R. Collins, Zach McCray, Corey Marshall and Luther Maddy. We played young guys there last year. I’m going to challenge them to take the next step. Be a coach on the field, not just a player.”
“I thought last year, we were in the ‘line up phase,’” Foster continued. “Now, we’re going to coach them on [the opponent’s] offense. We want them to play anticipative football, not reactive football. To be a championship caliber football team, to play in a national championship game, you need to be a dominant front.”
As offenses get more and more complex, the challenge of just getting kids lined up in the right spot can be daunting for defensive coordinators. Not only does Foster have tremendous experience coming back on defense, but he’s also got several outstanding players.
Foster said he watched the LSU-Alabama championship game closely last year.
“Up front, it was just amazing,” he said. “Whether it’s a 4-3, or a 3-4 like Alabama plays, you’re talking about a bunch of just simply dominant defensive tackles and ends. Fast, powerful, anticipative, playmakers. That’s what we want to develop here.”
Some of it comes through coaching. Most of it comes through recruiting.
“This recruiting class – I like it a lot,” Foster said. “Lots of defensive linemen. Even big ends who can be tackles. We are going to put big athletes on the field. I am hoping we can change our DNA a bit and be a physical, get-after-it type of front.”
That unit was pretty good last year. The Hokies had 41 sacks (12th in the NCAA), allowed just 3.2 yards per run (14th nationally) and finished fifth in red zone defense (Tech foes were held scoreless 30 percent of the time inside Tech’s 20-yard line).
Now with more depth and experience, Foster hopes his defense can be even more physical and nasty, and he hopes to set the tone this spring.
Among the defensive players to watch:
Detrick Bonner: He struggled a bit in the ACC championship game when Hosley got hurt, but he could really make a statement with a strong spring. He played more than 300 snaps on defense last year and 93 additional snaps on special teams for a total of more than 400 plays, which makes him a really experienced guy. He started four games last year.
Kyshoen Jarrett: He played in all 14 games last year as a true freshman, but mostly on special teams. In fact, he played just 25 snaps all season at corner. How the Hokies use Fuller in 2012 (see above) may be determined on Jarrett’s spring performance.
Alonzo Tweedy: He is coming off his best game (Sugar Bowl vs. Michigan). With Gouveia-Winslow limited this spring as he continues to recover from that Lisfranc foot fracture, Tweedy again has a chance to stand out, as he did at the end of the 2011 season. This will be Tweedy’s fifth spring practice at Tech, and he’ll be a 23-year-old fifth-year senior when the Hokies kick off their season against Georgia Tech. He’s a fast guy. He’s an experienced guy. He’ll be a huge part of Tech’s 2012 team.
Dadi Nicholas, Kris Harley, and Justin Taylor: All three redshirted last season, but Foster is hopeful each can make an impression this spring. That trio adds to the impressive list of really good-looking athletes the Hokies have on the defensive side of the ball.
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