The early part of Virginia Tech’s practice Tuesday focused all on tackling. Defenders rotated through three stations, one manned by defensive coordinator Bud Foster, one by defensive line coach Charley Wiles, one by defensive backs coach Torrian Gray.
Each had a different tackling drill — wrapping up (Foster), shedding blocks (Wiles) and open field (Gray) — all in an effort to correct the missed tackles and blown leverages against North Carolina last weekend.
“Normally when we do, that next game our execution and fundamentals are a lot better,” Gray said.
It was a change of pace from the media’s regular viewing session, which usually involves just position drills. After rotating the groups through the tackling drills for a period Tuesday, Foster called the defense together for a punishment drill. One by one he called players out for “loafs,” having the entire defense do up-downs before sprinting off the snap 10 yards.
“We need the intensity level to be ratcheted up, obviously,” Gray said. “We wouldn’t be putting the emphasis on the start of practice like we’re doing if we were satisfied with the way we’re playing overall right now.”
The Hokies are trying to shake something up after getting gouged for 537 yards against North Carolina, including 339 on the ground in a 48-34 loss last week, a surprisingly poor effort for a defense that was supposed to be the team’s strong point.
Wiles said missed tackles and blown leverages were the primary problems against North Carolina. Players think that had some to do with technique, but mostly with energy and attitude.
“I feel like tackling is more of a want-to thing,” linebacker Bruce Taylor said. “It’s not really a technique thing. So that’s why you can have pretty much the same group and the group not tackle as much as they did last year. Tackling to me is like a rebound thing in basketball. What do they say? 90 percent want-to, 10 percent technique? I wouldn’t say it’s that big of a ratio in football, but kind of along the same lines. You’ve kind of got to want-to.”
While coaches have said one or two free hitters are in position to make plays but just haven’t this year, Taylor thinks it’s a team problem.
“It’s definitely a committee thing,” he said. “You can point out a few guys that had more missed tackles the last game, but if one person misses a tackle on the defense, we all missed the tackle. Because we’re all out there together. And that’s what I always tell those guys out there, is if one guy does good, we all do good. If one person messes up, we all messed up.
“You’re only as strong as your weakest person, so to speak. So yeah, you don’t point fingers at guys who missed tackles or don’t make a play. We pat them on the butt and tell them to go to the next play.”
Here are a few more post-practice notes and quotes from Tuesday …
- Good stuff from Bruce tonight about the burden of leadership. He said he’s learned over the years that when he’s got something to say, just say it. So he’s spoken his mind. Has this year’s struggles allowed him to enjoy it, though? “It’s been more work than play, I feel like, this senior year for me,” he said. “But it’s what’s got to be done. Somebody’s got to be a leader, somebody’s got to take charge. It’s not an easy job. It’s easy when you’re winning. Talk to anybody who is 5-0, 6-0 right now. They’ll probably tell you it’s going great, it’s easy. But it’s when you face adversity and things like that, your true character has to show when it’s a little tougher.”
- The defense wasn’t the only group that ratcheted things up a little. The running backs were doing a modified bull-in-the-ring exercise, working on low pad level, with Shane Beamer commenting from the outside of the hula-hoop-like ring (he kept referring to players by their high schools). After Martin Scales and Joey Phillips had a punchless matchup, Shane remarked, “Y’all look like two old women.” Trey Edmunds stood up Scales on two occasions, drawing a, ‘That’s how they do it at Dan River” comment from Shane. He’s definitely got some power.
- Back to the defense, Wiles had some good stuff tonight. Asked if he was shocked by the team’s struggles, he said: “I never go into a game or into a year thinking I’m getting ready to get my ass beat. I don’t take that approach. But I mean, I’m not saying I’m surprised. I’m disappointed. But the only way we can get it solved is this Saturday. We need to win the game this Saturday and we’ll move on from there and get ready for another big game. I mean, every game down the stretch is a big game.”
- Overall, Wiles would like to see a better pass rush. But most importantly he wants to see guys “pitch a fit” up front. “We’ve got to fight harder,” he said. “I don’t think there was a bunch of loafs necessarily, but just don’t be content with just winning your gap. We’ve got to chase it and fight. We’re fighting for our lives, man, and you’ve got to play like that every play.”
- He pointed out that defensive end James Gayle is playing well. The junior had the most productive day of the linemen against North Carolina, with 7 tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss. “[He] was a guy who you can look at and say that’s the way that we’ve got to play,” Wiles said. “He chased the ball, he played extremely hard, he fought to get it. He got tackled a couple times but just kind of kept playing.”
- Wiles said Virginia Tech turned in four or five plays to the ACC office that they thought were holding. The league, he said, agreed. “[No.] 73 took us down three times,” Wiles said. “He took Jack [Tyler] down one time. Those were big plays in the game. Tyrel [Wilson] got held. James got held. We could have had some chances to hit the quarterback that were factor plays.” He later added: “We’ve got to just play harder and pitch more of a fit and don’t let them hold. That can’t be an excuse.”
- The Hokies used a four defensive end look at times Saturday to combat many of the jailbreak screens UNC was running, “getting more guys out on the field that can run and make plays out by the numbers,” Wiles said. Dadi Nicolas was one player who got more time in that look. Wiles likes what he sees, even if it’s not polished. “I see a guy on video that plays awfully fast,” he said. “I think the kid’s a talent, but inexperienced. … You’ve got to live with a couple mistakes with him. But that was behind that, just trying to get some more speed on the field.”
- Wiles said defensive tackle Luther Maddy isn’t 100 percent. He injured his ankle against Cincinnati and couldn’t do much. He was limited against North Carolina and tweaked it late in the game. “Since Georgia Tech, I haven’t seen the same guy,” Wiles said. “Looking for that guy right now.” Antoine Hopkins took reps with the ones Tuesday night.
- While we’re talking about injuries, neither left guard David Wang (ankle/knee) nor backup center/guard Caleb Farris (ankle) was out at practice today. Laurence Gibson moved from right tackle to left guard for some reps today. Michael Via took the backup center reps.
- Wide receiver Dyrell Roberts was watching practice from the sideline in street clothes. With him having not practiced this late in the week, I’d be surprised if he was out there Saturday.
- Linebacker Tariq Edwards and running back Tony Gregory were out there in regular practice uniforms. Taylor said Edwards is still working his way back. “He’s still limping a little bit, but with me, it’s the same thing,” he said, referring to his recovery from a Lisfranc injury. “You can go full speed but when you’re trying to slow down, that’s when you kind of feel it more. That’s what I’m feeling with Tariq. Other than that, he looks good. He’s in good shape as far as what he’s done. I wouldn’t say he’s in game shape right now, but moving around he looks good.”
- Cornerback Kyle Fuller‘s shoulder still isn’t all the way healed. He suffered a stinger against Pittsburgh but has played each of the last three weeks. “You have to work through it and continue to get better,” he said. Gray thinks the injury has been part of the reason for his middling performances the last few weeks. “He hasn’t been the Kyle Fuller that I expect to play on a consistent level right now,” Gray said.
- Tech’s nickel formation isn’t nearly the same as last year, since the Hokies don’t quite have the same personnel. Cris Hill was a true cornerback last season, so it allowed him to come into the game and Fuller to move to nickelback. “That’s the dynamic we don’t have now,” Gray said. “By not having a true third corner who can consistently play for us, we miss that element of it right now.” Tech doesn’t trust any corners beyond Fuller and Antone Exum. Gray said Michael Cole plays free safety in the nickel, with Detrick Bonner technically serving as the nickelback. “You’re limited a little bit because we can’t run our pressure packages,” Gray said.
- Duke will probably play a pair of quarterbacks Saturday, with Sean Renfree coming off an injury and Anthony Boone following up his breakout performance against Virginia. Renfree’s more of the pocket passer. Boone can run it on read plays more. “We hold up personnel [cards], so you know who’s in the game so you know what to expect,” Taylor said. There’s also a simpler way to do it. “Of course, we’ll look over there and see,” he added.