Finding the Right Mix

The Virginia Tech linebackers have great ability and their attention to assignments is paramount. This article points out the responsibilities of each Hokie linebacker in Bud Foster's defense, the potential starters and the depth at each position.

The guys that make the pads crack on the TV broadcast.  The guys with Carolina blue, Clemson orange, and Florida State gold paint embedded into their helmets.  The guys that report directly to defensive coordinator Bud Foster.  As many know, Virginia Tech lines up a little different than most defenses, particularly at the linebacker spots.  I will provide you with a description of each of the three linebacker positions and break down the projected depth chart.  

Let's start with the man in the middle--the Mike.  The middle linebacker position at Virginia Tech is very similar to most other middle linebacker schemes that use a 4-3 alignment.  The minor difference is that he will line up toward the wide side of the field between the defensive tackle and end.  His primary responsibility is to be physical at the point of attack against the run.  In addition, Foster's scheme demands that the player manning this position is able to blitz effectively, drop into zone coverage in the middle and at times match up man-to-man against the tight end or running back.  So, who do the Hokies have lining up in the middle?

 

52 – Barquell Rivers (6 – 0, 230, r-Jr.)

‘Quell got his first start two seasons ago in the Orange Bowl against Cincinnati .  He started all 13 games for the Hokies in the middle last season.  Rivers tallied 96 tackles including 6.5 for loss.  Rivers showed steady improvement throughout 2009 and ranked 7th in the Atlantic Coast Conference in tackles per game.  Unfortunately for the Hokies, Rivers suffered a ruptured quadriceps tendon that forced him to miss spring practice.  This was a pretty serious injury and his return in time for August practice is questionable.   

That brings us to…..  

51 – Bruce Taylor (6 -2, 246, r-So.)

Taylor is a huge, SEC-sized linebacker lining up for the Hokies.  Foster's scheme typically depends on smaller, quicker, faster players.  Taylor fits that mold—well, except for the smaller part.  He runs like a typical VT Mike, but has typical Alabama size.  Because of this, he is regarded the best NFL prospect on VT's roster at the linebacker position.  His progress has been slowed by nagging injuries in the early part of his career.  However, the injury to Rivers allowed Taylor to get the majority of the reps this spring.  By all accounts, Taylor made good use of his time and appears poised for a breakout year.  Taylor is expected to start against the Broncos and his play in the middle will be a huge factor in how effective the Hokies' defense is against the versatile Bronco attack.   

38 – Quillie Odom (6 – 1, 244, Jr.)

Odom moved over from the Backer position to the Mike this spring.  He came in to VT as a very highly regarded prospect and was a man amongst boys during his prep season at Hargrave Military Academy .  However, since arriving in Blacksburg "his mind has been tying up his feet" as the expression goes.  In other words, he needs to relax and let his natural instincts take over.  The good news for Hokie Nation and Mr. Odom is that the move to the middle proved to be beneficial this spring.  He made great strides in his consistency.  Odom's continued progress this August will determine whether or not he sees the field against the Broncos.  Foster doesn't substitute his linebacker platoon frequently, so in order to take live game reps from Taylor and Rivers, Odom will have to shine in practice.

 

Let's take a step towards the short sideline and discuss VT's Backer position.  Like the Mike, the Backer lines up between the defensive end and tackle, except toward the short (or boundary) side of the field.  This means that he often has backside contain/pursuit responsibilities.  This will be a huge responsibility against the Broncos due the amount of misdirection and counters they employ in their offensive attack.  The Backer must be an excellent athlete as he must be physical against runs going to the short side of the field and must be able to run with secondary receivers releasing into his area.  He will be asked to blitz, drop into zone coverage, and match up man-to-man just like the Mike.   

Last year's starter for game one against ‘Bama was Jake Johnson.  Jake tallied 13 tackles in the losing effort against the Tide in last year's opener.  However, as the season wore on opponents began to pick on Jake due to his poor coverage skills.  He also missed his run gap assignments too frequently which led to big runs for the Hokies' opponents.  This will land you in Coach Foster's doghouse rather quickly.  Jake was replaced as the starter midway through the season.  This spring, he attempted to switch positions and give defensive end a shot.  However, his heart was still at the LB spot and Jake has left the program.  Hokie nation wishes him well on his journey.  

So who is going to man the Backer spot against the Broncos?

 

39 – Lyndell Gibson (5 – 11, 232, r-So.)

Gibson started the 2009 season in the coach's doghouse as well, which opened the door for the aforementioned Jake Johnson to start.  However, by midseason he had redeemed himself and his talent could not be denied.  The Hokies were simply a better football team with him on the field.  He started 5 games and totaled 53 tackles, 2.5 for a loss.  Gibson appears to have a very high ceiling and the coaches are excited about what he brings to the position.  

The bad news is that things get a little thin behind Lyndell.  While Quillie Odom could be moved back to provide depth in a pinch, the Hokies will turn to a redshirt freshman  and a true freshman this August to help answer the depth question.   

57 – Telvion Clark (6 -1, 227, r-Fr.)

Telvion has all the tools needed to excel at the Backer position.  An explosive athlete, Clark runs the 40 in under 4.5 and has a 36-inch vertical.  He also can back squat 565 pounds, second highest on the team.   He showed great explosiveness working with the scout team last fall and continued to impress this past spring.  Consistency in technique and fundamentals will determine how much Clark contributes this fall.  

36 – Chase Williams (6 -1, 231, Fr.)

Normally the Hokies do not look for true freshman to contribute outside of special teams, if at all.  However, Williams may prove to be an exception.  The son of former Washington Redskins head coach and current New Orleans Saints defensive co-coordinator, Gary Williams, Chase Williams is light years ahead of the learning curve.  He is also physically where he needs to be as a Division 1 college linebacker already, benefiting from his exposure to NFL locker rooms.  He graduated high school early allowing him to enroll at VT this spring and participate in spring practices with the team.  Williams turned heads as a quick learner and flashed some playmaking ability.  Williams gets the early nod as the true freshman who is most likely to contribute this fall.

 

That brings us to the much-publicized, often talked-about, Whip linebacker.  The Whip is one of two hybrid positions used by Fosters' scheme.  The Whip lines up outside of the defensive end on the wide (or ‘field') side of the play.   Part strong safety, part outside linebacker, the Whip must be fast, agile, and--most of all--have a knack for making plays.  The Whip will cover slot receivers man-to-man, blitz the quarterback off the edge, ‘clean up' running plays as they spill his way, wash the team uniforms, drive the bus, and babysit Foster's kids if need be.  It should be noted that Foster does not coach the Whips.  That duty falls to Jim Cavanaugh, who also coaches the rover position.  

The bad news for the Hokies is that they lose their top two Whips from last year's team and return virtually zero experience.  Cody Grimm (or the People's Champ) looked like he won a lottery of students to dress out with the Hokies.  At 5'-11', 203 lbs he looked like he belonged in the stands with the fans.  However, this former walk-on played his way into a scholarship, a starting role, and Hokie lore forever.  The son of former Washington Redskins Hall of Fame offensive lineman Russ Grimm earned third-team All-America honors his senior year.  He will be missed not only for his exceptional play, but also for his leadership and work-ethic.   

Who do the Hokies have lined up to fill in for ‘The People's Champ'?

 

43 – Jeron Gouveia-Winslow (6-2, 207, R-So.)

Gouveia-Winslow heads into fall cap atop the depth chart at Whip.  He is the most experienced player the Hokies have at the position.  He is a solid all-around athlete who has worked at the Whip position since he arrived on campus.  This gives him the advantage heading into the fall.  However, sitting behind Cody Grimm and Cam Martin, his game reps have been limited. Whatever advantage he has in experience will probably be nullified by September 6, and unless he looks like the top playmaker it is no certain thing that he will be the starter.  

28 – Alonzo Tweedy (6-2, 188, R-So.)

Tweedy was a special teams standout last season, and some have labeled him as one of the best punt team gunners the Hokies have ever had.  He runs a 4.41 40 yard dash and is a solid open-field tackler.  On paper, he looks like the man to beat.  However, he spent his redshirt season studying the rover position which has put him behind the learning curve.  It would not be surprising if Tweedy was the starter against the Broncos.  Regardless of who starts, both players are expected to play significant reps.  It cannot be overstated how important it is that both of these players push each other this August on the field and in the film room.  When the Hokies have struggled defensively early in the year, it has been because the Whip and rover failed to execute their assignments.  These two guys must be up to the task.  

23 – Lorenzo Williams (6-2, 217, R-So.)

Williams is the third candidate for playing time at the Whip position, but he may be a little behind the other two.  He saw some playing time at free safety during his freshman year and took a redshirt last season.  He moved to Whip in the spring and showed well.  He should not be discounted in the playing time race due to his size and athletic ability.

 

Overall, I feel pretty good about the potential of this group of linebackers.  The question is how quickly quality depth can be developed behind the starters. Once Rivers returns from injury, the Mike spot will have a very solid two-deep.  It is more concerning to Tech fans that a serviceable backup to Gibson emerges at the Backer spot.  The players behind him are talented (Clark) and bright (Williams), but nothing makes up for game experience.  Regardless of who wins the battle as the starting Whip, there will be a quality player backing him up.  The question there is how consistent those young guys can be out of the gate.  One mistake at that position can quickly lead to six points (see Virginia Tech's game film 2007 vs. LSU for evidence).   

I think the Broncos will look to exploit the Hokies' inexperience and aggressiveness at the linebacker spots with a lot of misdirection and screen plays.  The Broncos will exploit mental lapses quickly and trot the placekicker out for the PAT.  Coaches Foster and Cavanaugh certainly have their work cut out for them this August.  However, they are two of the best in the business and will be up to the task.

 

 


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