2021 Virginia Tech Football Preview: Part I, Defense
This is the first installment of a two-part series previewing the 2021 Virginia Tech football season. We’ll start with a recap of 2020: the good, the bad, and everything in between. Then, I’ll discuss what we can expect in 2021, dissecting the strengths of the team and potential areas for improvement. Today, we’ll look at the defense.
2020 in Review
The 2020 season was a cavalcade of errors for the Virginia Tech Hokies. While the year started off promising, as the team won four of their first six games, the good fortune soon ran dry, culminating in a four-game losing streak late in the year as the Hokies found just about every way imaginable to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: punt fumbles, goal line stumbles, kicker-icings, and sprinkler mishaps. There were individual standouts like Khalil Herbert and Christian Darrisaw, but between injuries, opt-outs, COVID, and recruiting, Virginia Tech lacked adequate depth at key positions and were too frequently rendered one-dimensional on offense. Though a 5-6 record does not meet the standard in Blacksburg—nor should it—there was more to this team than meets the eye.
As much as fans might not want to admit it, the Hokies were pretty darn unlucky in 2020. They underperformed by 1.8 second-order wins according to SP+ guru Bill Connelly, meaning they had an “expected” record of 7-4 (a cheap consolation, admittedly).
Analytically, Tech was 51st in the final FEI Ratings, 27th in SP+, and 32nd in FPI. The numbers said they were above average, and in some cases, very good; but the win-loss column suggested otherwise.
Looking at individual outcomes, Tech lost four games this season in which they outgained their opponents on a per-play basis. This may be partly due to the defense playing more soft zone coverage, meaning underneath passes were more available, resulting in incremental gains rather than big plays. For this reason, yards per play is a flawed metric. Another stat exists called available yards percentage, courtesy of Brian Fremeau with FEI. It simply measures the percentage of yards an offense attains relative to their starting field position: if you start a drive at your own 1-yard line and score a touchdown, you gain 100 percent of available yards. If that drive stalls at midfield, you get ~50 percent of available yards. I like this stat because it nullifies differences in starting field position (unlike total offense) and explosiveness (unlike yards per play). It’s also predictive: teams that win this stat win the game about 85 percent of the time.
But it wasn't so for the Hokies. Tech was 5-3 when they won the available yards battle; only one other school in the country (UCLA) lost as many games. So why the bad fortune?
Usually the first thing to look at when assessing luck is turnovers. Turnovers are a beloved talking point for broadcasters and coaches, but they are random by nature, don’t correlate well across seasons, and on a game-to-game basis are almost completely unpredictable. Despite the defensive struggles, the Hokies actually finished 2020 with a positive turnover differential (+3), in part due to some interception luck: they finished 41st in interception rate, despite the fact that they generated pass deflections (which combines both picks and pass breakups) at a much lower volume. This wasn’t quite the issue.
Another metric to evaluate luck is finishing drives. If a team consistently drives the ball downfield, it’s usually a sign that they are better than their opposition. But strategy does change in the red zone, as the space of the field shrinks, passing windows tighten, and teams can stock the box knowing there is no deep ball to protect against. For this reason, execution is paramount, and red zone play calling is heavily scrutinized (as Tech fans know quite well). However, weird things often happen in football, and as with turnovers, the ability to finish drives with touchdowns is partially influenced by luck.
Last season, Virginia Tech’s offense did a great job of moving the ball downfield. Bolstered by a dominant running attack and a big-play receiving game, the Hokies ranked 17th nationally in percentage of drives that reached their opponents’ 40-yard line. (Stats nerds like to use the 40-yard line as the barometer for finishing drives because it’s more inclusive of good drives than just red zone trips.) They scored on 76 percent of these drives, ranking 28th—a bit worse, though Brian Johnson’s accurate leg helped. But the real kicker was this: Tech averaged 4.2 points per possession inside the forty, ranking only 56th in the FBS. With an offensive line as good as Tech had, not placing even top fifty in this metric is hard to believe.
ACC: Points Per Drive, Inside 40
(Echoing the point about bad fortune, another statistical anomaly is that the Hokies finished dead last in the FBS in opponents’ field goal efficiency, another advanced stat courtesy of Football Outsiders. Tech’s opposition converted kicks at a 93 percent clip (13-of-14), which was not quite the highest in the country, but FGE takes into account the difficulty of those kicks based on their “expected” point value. In other words, opponents made kicks from distances at rates far above expectation. This is mostly just a luck stat—with a few exceptions, teams have almost no control over how accurate opposing kickers are, and special teams/tight end coach James Shibest has consistently performed well in his domain since coming to Blacksburg.)
Taking Connelly at his word, there were three games this season that Tech “should” have won based on the advanced metrics but came up short: Wake Forest, Liberty, and Miami, in descending order of improbability. Against the Demon Deacons, Virginia Tech got the ball inside the 40-yard line eight times. They settled for five field goals and threw two interceptions, one of which came with four seconds left in the first half, preventing a would-be score. The Liberty game played out somewhat similarly: Tech had a 12-play, 90-yard drive late in the second quarter that got to the Flames’ 1-yard line, but Justin Fuente opted to kick a field goal as there was only one second left in the half. In the fourth quarter, Tech’s defense forced an early stop, only for Tayvion Robinson to fumble the ensuing punt at his own 6-yard line, where the Flames promptly scored another touchdown. Against Miami, the Hokies earned a higher percentage of available yards and were more efficient per play but still found a way to lose.
Even the losses that seemed like thorough beatdowns weren’t actually so. In the 47-14 loss at Pitt, Tech had five scoring opportunities, wherein they proceeded to turn the ball over on downs three times and missed a field goal. There was one drive in the second quarter where the Hokies had a first-and-10 at Pitt’s 23-yard line. It ended with a punt.
It’s hard to say Tech was a bad football team in 2020. They had a positive point differential despite playing no FCS teams, and won three games against Power Five opponents by 18 or more points—only 13 other teams achieved that feat, almost all of whom played in major bowl games. Simply put, the sheer unluckinesses of their losses and the dominance of their wins contributed to the computer models liking them much more than conventional wisdom would suggest. However, there is a gripe to be had with the lack of consistency and execution on a week-to-week basis, something that has been a source of much consternation in the Fuente era.
Breaking Down the Defense
One of the staples of a Bud Foster defense was the utilization of aggressive blitz packages where corners were left to guard receivers on islands in man-to-man coverage. The end result of this was that Virginia Tech defenses had high success rates and generated lots of sacks, but were very susceptible to giving up big plays when defensive backs got burned. It was a high-risk, high-reward system. Foster rarely had blue-chip talent, especially on the defensive line, but he utilized scheme and instilled a culture of toughness to produce high-end results for 25 years.
The problem for Virginia Tech’s defense in 2020 was that they were neither efficient nor did they prevent big plays. They ranked 87th in yards per play, 99th in success rate, and 58th in isolated explosiveness, which essentially measures the magnitude of big plays you allow. The run defense was much worse than the pass defense, though not much of a compliment to either: Tech let quarterbacks complete nearly 62 percent of their passes, the highest mark allowed by a Hokie defense since at least 1986 and probably ever. Tech’s opponents gained at least four yards on the ground on over 55 percent of their carries, among the worst marks in the FBS.
In fairness to the coaches, most of Tech’s defensive linemen were recruited to play a different scheme under Foster and then-defensive line coach Charley Wiles. Foster and Wiles recruited smaller linemen that were taught to plug up the running gaps rather than push back and penetrate into the offensive line. College football today is increasingly geared towards the latter. Jarrod Hewitt, Norell Pollard, Mario Kendricks, and the rest of Virginia Tech’s defensive tackles either lacked the experience or just didn’t schematically fit what first-year defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton and defensive line coach Bill Teerlinck were looking for. Combine that with the fact that Hamilton had no spring or fall camp to install his defense, having instead to use PowerPoints on Zoom, and you had a recipe for disaster.
The defense also dealt with massive attrition throughout the year. Safety Devon Hunter was suspended before the season and never played. Cornerback Jermaine Waller had a lingering foot injury that sidelined him for all but two games. Defensive tackle DaShawn Crawford, arguably Tech’s most productive lineman in 2019, barely played with a knee strain. Emmanuel Belmar and TyJuan Garbutt—two important defensive ends—played a total of nine games. This is to say nothing of the constant rotation of players on the “unavailable due to COVID” list, which even knocked out safety Divine Deablo for a couple games.
There are no analytics required for injuries, illness, and inexperience. Tech just didn’t have the bodies to work with in 2020. But there were some bright spots.
One of the few areas where Tech’s defense did excel was getting to the quarterback. The Hokies had the 14th highest sack rate in 2020, led by Amaré Barno and Justus Reed who had 6.5 apiece. Encouraging is that both of those players are defensive ends; historically the team’s linebackers have racked up a disproportionate amount of sacks due to Foster’s scheme. Additionally, the Hokies’ per-attempt passing numbers were pretty solid due to not only the sacks but a high interception rate (though as we discussed before, there’s probably some luck involved). When you take into account the quality of the offenses faced—North Carolina, Louisville, and Clemson, among others—the defense probably wasn’t quite as bad as some made it out to be.
More than anything, they showed improvement towards the end of the season, holding Clemson and Miami to below their season average in yards per play and culminating with a smothering performance against Virginia in the season finale.
In Justin Hamilton’s own words, the defensive line is the most important position unit on defense in the way they impact the running game and the passing game. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the defensive coaches have placed the biggest emphasis on recruiting at this position.
In comes defensive tackle Jordan Williams, a transfer from Clemson and native of Virginia Beach who at 6’5 and 285 pounds is an excellent pass rusher. He will be complimented on the interior by one of Norell Pollard and Mario Kendricks, who are talented but were undersized last year. Over the offseason, Pollard added roughly 16 pounds to get his weight to 281, while Kendricks checks in at a sturdy 290. Redshirt freshman Josh Fuga is over 300 pounds, as is Max Philpott. Reflected in Hamilton’s recruiting is a concerted effort to get more size at the defensive tackle position, in keeping pace with the way college football is played today.
Each summer, Athlon Sports publishes an article detailing the opinions of anonymous ACC coaches on every team in the league. One point of criticism for Virginia Tech in years past is that they don’t have anyone on the defensive line that really scares you—a “war daddy”, or someone you have to gameplan for.
Amaré Barno might be enough to change their mind. The 6’6 redshirt junior defensive end is the Hokies’ finest physical specimen on the line, and was arguably the team’s most effective edge rusher following the injury to Emmanuel Belmar, who played in only five games due to a lingering concussion. In 2020, he finished third nationally and first in the Power Five with 16 tackles for loss. With his speed, athleticism, and long arms, Barno made most of his living off sheer physical talent; he was still pretty raw from a technique standpoint. If he improves the fundamentals, the sky is the limit.
TyJuan Garbutt is a good bet to start at the other defensive end spot. He missed the first five games of 2020 dealing with a family matter and never quite got into the swing of things. At 6’1 and 238, he’s a little undersized, but he graded at nearly the 90th percentile among edge rushers in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. With the recent departures of Alec Bryant and Robert Wooten, and the medical retirement of Belmar, this unit is somewhat thin. Expect redshirt sophomore Eli Adams and redshirt junior Jaylen Griffin to fill out the two-deep, with freshman Cole Nelson also in the fold. Pass rushing is certainly a concern: per David Hale, the two Hokies with the highest pressure rate last year were Justus Reed and defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt, both of whom are gone. Barno was the next closest, and he didn’t rank top-20 in the ACC. Considering that Belmar had more TFLs (3.5) in five games than any other end besides Barno had in a full season, more production is needed from this group.
At linebacker, fourth-year junior Dax Hollifield will take over at MIKE (middle linebacker) in place of the recently-departed Rayshard Ashby. Hollifield is a more natural fit at this position, having played at the outside (“backer”) spot the previous two seasons, where his lack of speed was exposed in coverage. The MIKE is the quarterback of the defense, responsible for reading the offense and getting his teammates lined up correctly; the coaches trust Hollifield to do this. Ideally, if the defensive line can hold up better at the point of attack, it will open up more lanes for Hollifield to attack ball carriers and he won’t be getting pushed back to the second level.
Redshirt junior Alan Tisdale will start at outside linebacker. Like Barno, he’s a physical freak, fast and wiry. The main concern for Tisdale in the past has been his weight (and by extension, his physicality), but he has added 18 pounds over the offseason and is now up to 228. Such is the dilemma for most backers: you are either fast enough to cover but too small to tackle well, or strong enough to tackle but too slow in coverage. The ones that can do both are usually playing for Alabama and Georgia. Luckily, Tisdale still has room to grow.
Redshirt sophomore Keshon Artis will spell Hollifield, while freshman Dean Ferguson and Marshall transfer C.J. McCray figure to get some run as well. Bud Foster loved to ride his two starting linebackers for the entirety of the game; we’ll see if Hamilton, in a “normal” year, spreads the reps more evenly. Like most position groups, there is talent up front, but quality depth is a concern.
At cornerback, junior Jermaine Waller returns after an injury-plagued 2020 season in which he appeared in just two games due to a foot injury, among other ailments. There’s a million ways to put into words how good Waller was in 2019: he recorded three interceptions, seven pass break-ups, and dominated the PFF rankings. His counterpart on the boundary will be Dorian Strong, a lowly-recruited corner from Maryland who took full advantage of the Hokies’ attrition at defensive back last year, logging over 450 snaps and earning the highest grade among all Tech corners despite being a true freshman with a COVID offseason. Strong was superb in coverage, which is very encouraging because it shows he has the physical tools and instincts to play at a high level. The run support could use some work, but that will come with time. Assuming Waller comes back free of rust, this is going to be a very good cornerback duo this fall. Unlike other position groups on this team (and even Tech secondaries of years past), this unit doesn’t have a star, per se, but they are really deep: Armani Chatman and Brion Murray, both of whom saw substantial playing time last year, will serve as backups, with Nadir Thompson and Ny’Quee Hawkins on the third team.
Also returning is two-year starter Chamarri Conner—a nickelback, former WHIP, slot corner, linebacker/safety hybrid—whatever you want to call him, he’s one of the most valuable players on this defense. Conner is best when attacking downhill: he’s big and physical, capable of shedding blocks, and a willing tackler with good instincts for the ball, as seen below.
As a nickel, he’s playing somewhat out of position (early NFL draft profiles project him as a safety), but he’s too good to keep off the field. He is a liability in coverage, having to guard shiftier slot receivers, but so too are most guys his size. Conner is well-utilized as a blitzer and important in run defense. A return to his 2019 form will be a big boost to the defense.
On the back end, Vanderbilt transfer Tae Daley will slot in at free safety, while Devon Hunter is the starter at boundary safety (or rover). With Devin Taylor having recently left the team, freshmen J.R. Walker and Keonta Jenkins will also be in the mix. Jenkins performed about as well as you could expect for a youngster thrown into the fire due to a rash of COVID cases in the secondary.
This group has upside, but there are also some question marks. Both Daley and Hunter have not played a game in two years; Daley played well for Vanderbilt in 2018, but regressed the following year and entered the transfer portal prior to the start of last season. Jenkins has tremendous potential, but his playing time dissipated after the third game of the season, while Walker is still wet behind the ears. Divine Deablo, the most important player on the back end, is gone, and it may take some time to replace his production.
In keeping with the transition to a new-look Virginia Tech defense, Hamilton incorporated much more zone coverage last season, in contrast to his predecessor Foster, who almost exclusively played man-to-man. At its worst, the zone defense was a sieve, as veteran quarterbacks like Kenny Pickett found the soft spots in the coverage and exposed the Hokies’ lack of experience in the secondary and lack of athleticism at linebacker. Pickett threw for 404 yards on a gaudy 52 attempts, meticulously picking apart the defense with a steady diet of curls, comebacks, and shallow crosses en route to a 33-point win.
It’s easy, then, to ask why Tech didn’t just play more man coverage. But man coverage requires speed and quickness, which the Hokies’ secondary did not have with the absences of Waller and future first-round draft pick Caleb Farley. Zone defenses are advantageous in that they can be confusing for quarterbacks, particularly younger ones, who must wait for their receivers to find the creases in the coverage but risk throwing interceptions if a linebacker undercuts the route. Pickett made at least one such mistake, and the Hokies picked off UVA’s Brennan Armstrong twice in the season finale. Even Trevor Lawrence of Clemson put up fairly pedestrian numbers for three quarters in his late-season matchup with the Hokies. He probably had difficulty deciphering the defense, if we are to take Hollifield at his word when he said in an offseason press conference that he genuinely believed Lawrence had no idea what coverage Tech was running. That is zone defense at its best: disciplined, assignment football, reading the quarterback’s eyes and swarming to the ball.
Hamilton’s unit adopted a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy last season. Unfortunately, there was a bit more breaking than bending. But he stated that if his defense can hold the opposition to a field goal each time out, they will be successful. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, and it might give you some pause. But consider that last October, Nick Saban readily acknowledged that the days of defense winning championships are long gone. “Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore,” the coaching legend told ESPN.
And how right he is. One can look at SP+, which gives us an “adjusted” points per game that controls for opponent, tempo, and luck. Last year, Georgia’s defense paced all of college football with 11.8 adjusted points allowed per contest. That was the highest figure for a national leader since 2005, and a far cry from the 4.6 adjusted points yielded by the smothering 2006 Virginia Tech defense. The overall averages haven’t changed much, but the point is that offensive schemes and talent have made it so much more difficult to dominate for four quarters.
With this in mind, Virginia Tech’s defense has much to prove in 2021. They don’t need to get stops all the time, but they need to get enough of them, and get them when they matter. The run defense was porous last year, so much so that even substantial improvements might only put them in the middle of the pack this time around. But improve they will, and with better linebacker play, stability at corner, and increased familiarity with Hamilton’s scheme, the Hokies’ defense is more than capable of establishing a stronghold among the ACC’s best.