Coordinators Scot Loeffler and Bud Foster still did their usual Wednesday interviews with the media Wednesday. Here are a few takeaways from both:
1. He normally wouldn’t want a break in the middle of a hot streak, but the Hokies needed it.
Foster’s defense is playing at an extremely high level, but going for seven straight weeks without a bye, especially against other teams that have had that rest, wasn’t ideal.
He wanted his group to get healthy this week but keep its timing.
“We’ve been playing well and just don’t want to lose that edge there, too,” he said.
Would he have preferred to keep playing?
“I think we’ve got too many big games,” Foster said. “I would like to think that we’re mature enough on our side that kids will be sharp and will look to understand, hey, we’re giving them a little break. I kind of approached this: we’re at the midpoint, really. We’ve got five games left, but they’re five big games.”
2. He’d like to continue using the three-defensive end package that Dadi Nicolas thrived in Saturday, although he doesn’t know how many opportunities will present themselves.
Foster employed a look against Pitt that had James Gayle and J.R. Collins as regular defensive ends, then had Nicolas in an altered whip linebacker role, where he had few pass coverage responsibilities and could crash down on the tight end.
It worked well (Tech had eight sacks), although Pittsburgh was in enough two-tight end looks to warrant it, leaving the future of that particular package in doubt.
“If we can figure out a way to do that, I’d like to do that,” Foster said. “This week [vs. Duke] is going to be 11 personnel [one back, one tight end] primarily and it’s hard to get him in there, especially due to multiple coverages you want to play against some of this stuff that he just doesn’t have any experience.
“But the guy can drop. He can do a lot of things. One time we blitzed, we brought edge pressure, and we had him dropping down the middle of the field.”
Nicolas, who spoke to the media for the first time Tuesday, sounds like he’s open to playing more whip if Foster will let him, even though that might be a stretch.
“You guys got him juiced right now,” Foster said to reporters. “I was sitting out there waiting for practice and he said, ‘Hey, coach. What do you think about me playing some more whip out there a little bit?’ I said, ‘We’re talking about it, Dadi.’ But he’s a fun kid, but he’s a play-maker.”
3. Foster continues to be amazed by how much ground Nicolas can cover.
He looked at the tape to see how much space Nicolas had between steps: 3 yards.
“That’s nine feet, man. I was like, ‘This guy can cover some ground,’” Foster said, saying Nicolas had “freakish abilities.”
Foster talked about another play where Nicolas was on the opposite side of the field of a quick pass to a Pitt wide receiver. Kendall Fuller made the tackle. The next player there? Nicolas, all the way from the other side.
“The guy has just got tremendous ability and a tremendous motor,” Foster said. “Just can suck people up and I just don’t know if I’ve seen a stride length like that before. …
“He’s raw and still is. But also at the same time, he’s got a lot of common sense from a football standpoint. He’s got great vision. He’s got a knack, he’s got good quickness and things, but he’s come a long way, but he’s still got a long way to go.”
4. Derrick Hopkins is a guy Foster thinks doesn’t get enough pub.
Asked point blank if there’s anyone on the defense flying under the radar at all, Foster chose the senior defensive tackle.
“He’s just Steady Eddie,” Foster said. “Nobody knocks him off the ball.”
It’s not just on running plays. Hopkins has four sacks this year, two coming against Pittsburgh, despite their massive guards.
“One of them they slid their protection and he beat the center, but the other time he was 2-on-1,” Foster said. “He fought his tail off. I think he’s a guy that’s quietly having a big-time year.”
Foster said the 6-foot, 311-pound Hopkins quietly goes about his business, but he’s shown up every week.
“He’s kind of one of the unsung heroes, I think,” Foster said. “And I don’t know what you guys are writing about him, but I think he’s a guy that really is having a big-time year. An all-league kind of year. I don’t know if he’s going to get it. I don’t know the numbers. I don’t really look at that. But I don’t know if there’s a better defensive tackle in the league.”
Foster was pleased to find out Hopkins made CBSSports.com’s midseason All-America team in the second group.
5. Cornerback Antone Exum (knee) has looked better at practice this week.
Foster thinks Exum took another step forward the last few days.
“I don’t know if it’s he circled this date, per se, in his mind, but I almost see that kind of in his mindset,” he said. “I saw him this week play with a little more confidence and not drag the leg and not look like he’s favoring it one way or another. You know what I mean? And that was nice to see.”
Foster doesn’t think Exum is 100 percent yet, but he and the staff will talk about how much the senior is going to play if he’s ready to go.
“Is it 70-30? Is it 50-50? Is it 60-40? I don’t know,” Foster said. “But he’s been working at it and I appreciate it.”
1. Practices were shorter during the bye week, but not necessarily less intense.
Instead of two-hour practices on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Hokies were on the field for only an hour and 20 minutes each day.
“It’s fast, furious and get out,” Loeffler said. “And for us to correct the things that we need to correct, it couldn’t be, ‘Let’s go through a walk-through and a jog-through.’ It had to be fast and we need to get better. You can’t get better when you’re not going full speed.”
The offensive coaches spent most of the early part of the week doing self-study, going through every single play this season.
“We basically did our quality control that you do in the month of February,” Loeffler said.
They’ve also done some Duke prep for Oct. 26.
“You have to,” Loeffler said. “That’s your advantage.”
2. He’s realistic about how much the running game can improve.
Loeffler did not take the stance that Virginia Tech is going to come out of the bye week having fully solved all of the woes in the running game. But he said it needs to be better.
“We’re not going to go from where we’re at to where we want to be,” he said. “We just need to get it a little bit better in our deficiencies. And if we can do that and not turn over the ball with the way our defense is playing, we’ve got a shot. We’ve just got to get a little bit better.”
He set a modest of goal of doubling the output recently, which would still only put the Hokies at 130 yards a game or so, far from where they want it to be. But given the across the board issues — from the line opening holes to the backs and quarterback making the right reads to receivers blocking — expecting everything to come together and Virginia Tech to suddenly rush for 200 yards a game is a bit out of reach.
“We’re throwing it well enough,” he said. “If we can improve in that area just a little bit, we’ll be OK.”
3. The run game problems are a big reason for the red zone struggles.
When Loeffler was at Michigan, he said he did a study when the Wolverines were struggling to run the ball and finish off drives in the red zone. He said he found that when the team threw an incompletion on first down in the red zone, the percentage of times it scored a touchdown dropped to 22 percent.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “If you’re going to throw it, you’ve got to complete it. The moral of the story is: if you’re a great throwing team, you’re 60 percent. So that means there’s a 40 percent chance there’s an incompletion, which moves that thing all the way down to 20 percent that you’re going to score in the red. So you better be able to run the ball.”
Loeffler said Tech has done an OK job of throwing the ball in the end zone, but it’s not easy, especially when coverages get scrunched into a small space.
“Calling a third down and eight on [the] 8-yard line is not easy,” he said. “That’s a hard call. That’s what the NFL works on all the time. … So we’ve got to be able to run it better down there. It’ll all get better if we can just run it a little better.”
4. Quarterback Logan Thomas was as healthy as he’s been this week.
After dealing with an abdominal strain and a foot sprain, Thomas practiced full speed for the first time in three weeks. The foot problem is still lingering, but Loeffler said it’s tolerable.
Resting up sounds like the theme of the week.
“We wanted to have the mentality that … we want to do Monday, spend a ton of time in the training room,” he said. “Tuesday, spend a ton of time in the training room. Practice hard for an hour and 15 minutes. Practice hard for an hour and 15 minutes. And now let’s use Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday to get healthy.”
5. Thomas’ improvement is mostly a result of getting comfortable in the system.
I have a story about Thomas coming out in Thursday’s paper. He hasn’t thrown an interception in his last 109 passes, 10 shy of his longest streak. He’s completed 65 percent of his passes and five touchdowns the last three weeks, all against ACC foes.
Why the success recently?
“I think one, comfort with the offense. Two, things are starting to click,” Loeffler said. “The first ballgame, you really can’t evaluate. We had so many perimeter issues. We were all over the map Week 1 in the throw game.
“Second game, third game, started getting a feel for you solid, but it just wasn’t it yet. And from there on out, I think he’s starting to get it. He’s starting to see windows. He’s starting to see how good his footwork marries up with the route principle. He’s eliminating guys that are covered and getting to No. 2, getting to No. 3, getting to 4.
“He’s just getting it. Just getting it.”