Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster is quick to remind observers all the various defensive looks the Hokies have been showing in the last few weeks aren't exactly brand new innovations drawn up in the dirt during game-week practices.
Foster remembers using a three-down linemen approach a few times around the turn of the century. Virginia Tech used it a lot in 2002 in a 30-0 win at Western Michigan, a game in which the Hokies registered five sacks and held the Broncos to 35 yards rushing. Virginia Tech incorporated it again in '07, late in Boston College's 14-10 win in Blacksburg that broke the hearts of Tech's players, coaches and fans.
Still, what caused Foster to bring back some of the concepts that depart from his more traditional 4-3 alignment? Why might Tech, which struggled defensively with missed tackles and blown assignments in its first two games, come out Saturday at No. 23 North Carolina State (4-0 overall, 1-0 ACC) with more of the three-man fronts and nickel packages against quarterback Russell Wilson?
For Foster, it's more about making sure he can keep his best players on the field in specific roles than it is about being some kind of mad scientist with a headset.
"It gets some guys in different roles on the team, especially some young guys," said Foster, who will lead his defense Saturday in a crucial game for Tech to continue to re-establish itself after an 0-2 start. "That's been valuable for them to get experience and have a role on the football team, where maybe they might not have had a role with some regular personnel."
In the offseason, Foster spent time visiting with New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is the father of Tech freshman linebacker Chase Williams. Last season, New Orleans used an aggressive, blitzing approach – much of it out of a three-man front with attacking linebackers behind it – on its way to the Super Bowl.
With the three-down linemen setups, Tech (2-2, 1-0) was able to get linebackers and defensive ends to pressure East Carolina quarterback Dominique Davis (sacked three times in Tech's 49-27 win) and Boston College quarterbacks Dave Shinskie and Mike Marscovetra (sacked combined six times in Tech's 19-0 win; two sacks from defensive end and Phoebus High product Steven Friday). ECU gained just 83 second-half yards against Tech, while BC picked up 39 second-half yards as Tech earned its first defensive shutout since 2006.
In addition, Tech used five defensive backs a lot against ECU and BC, allowing backup free safety Antone Exum to get valuable playing time. Exum, a redshirt freshman, had 16 of his 17 tackles for the season in the last two games. Of course, the high-pressure attack has placed emphasis on Tech's defensive backs being strong in coverage, something that will be critical today against Wilson.
"I'm loving it," said Tech strong safety Davon Morgan regarding the Hokies' defensive variety.
"It's putting the game on the secondary's shoulders. We look forward to the challenge. If we can stop the run, and make a team one-dimensional where they have to pass the ball, that's a challenge we look forward to every week."
N.C. State's offensive line features four sophomore starters and has been susceptible to good pass rushing defenses (the Wolfpack is tied for the most sacks allowed in the ACC this season with 11), but Wilson has still managed to find his targets by spreading the ball around. Five N.C. State pass-catchers have 11 or more receptions, led by wide receiver Owen Spencer's 14 catches for 211 yards.
"(Wilson) knows his stuff and he goes through his progressions pretty well," said Morgan, who, like Wilson, is a Richmond native. "As a defense, we're just going to go out and play Bud Foster defense, bait (Wilson) to throw us a couple and take advantage of it."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun