Tech will go into the season opener against the two-time defending national champion with the same plan it does every game defensively — stop the run first.
“That sets everything up that they do,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “They like to play-action pass on first down and second down, but the run game sets all that up.”
“That’s our game plan every week,” linebacker Jack Tyler said. “Going into every single play, even if it’s East Carolina, a spread team, we’re still going to try to stop the run, make them one-dimensional. Against Alabama, it’s obviously going to take a little more effort and a little more discipline to get it done.”
Alabama ran for 227.5 yards per game last year, ranking 16th nationally. Using primarily Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon and running behind a line that featured three All-Americans, the Crimson Tide averaged 5.59 yards per carry (6th nationally) and scored 37 rushing touchdowns (t-13th).
That included 615 rushing yards and five touchdowns in its final two games of the year — the SEC championship game against Georgia and the BCS title game against Notre Dame.
Lacy is gone, as are three linemen taken in the NFL Draft – D.J. Fluker, Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones – but Yeldon returns as the primary back, coming off a freshman season in which he ran for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns. The line lost a lot but still has talent, highlighted by potential future first-round NFL pick Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle.
Foster thinks the key is keeping the Tide from getting its running game going early.
“That’s what Texas A&M was able to do early,” he said. “They scored early. And then got them out of their run game. Then, when the game got close, Alabama started to run the football. That’s their strength. They’ve got some dynamic players on the outside but their strength is running the football. And I’m sure they want to find out if they’ve got the guys up front too to be able to do that early on. ”
On the outside, Amari Cooper broke most of Alabama’s freshman receiving records last year, catching 59 passes for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. Three other veterans – Kevin Norwood, DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell – return from injuries last year. The Tide is also excited about the potential of tight end O.J. Howard, a five-star tight end.
And, of course, there’s the guy throwing it to them, AJ McCarron, who had 30 touchdowns and only three interceptions last year.
Tech’s strategy of focusing on the run will put its cornerbacks in a lot of one-on-one situations. With freshmen cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson expected to get major playing time (at least one will certainly start), they’ll have their share of matchups with Cooper come Saturday.
“It is what it is, man,” Foster said. “Amari Cooper was a freshman last year. Kendall Fuller is a dynamic freshman. And I think Brandon Facyson’s a dynamic freshman. They’re going to have to play sooner or later. But I feel good about those guys. They’re gamer-type kids. I haven’t seen a deer in headlight look and I don’t think you will see that. I think those kids have a lot of confidence in their abilities and obviously they’re going to get better and grow each time they take a snap.”
Virginia Tech began full Alabama preparation late last week, although many of the players have been watching film on the Crimson Tide since the spring.
“I see what everyone sees,” Tyler said. “They’re big, physical, obviously have great athletes at every position, great quarterback. But they’re not gods. They’re beatable. And we’re good enough to do it.”