September 22, 2003 BLACKSBURG Every day when practice ends at Virginia Tech, that's when it starts. It's the extra work sessions. These are the areas where a little more concentration needs to be placed. Pick any weekday, and you're bound to find at least one or two of the Hokies' cornerbacks, safeties or rovers out there for an extra five or 10 minutes. When pass coverage is not your first priority as a defensive back, and it's not your defense's strong suit, sometimes it takes putting in a little overtime to cover all the bases. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall hones his technique and gets his footwork down. Rover Michael Crawford chats with free safety Jimmy Williams about play recognition. It's all about improving what the Hokies do worst yet spend the least amount of time focusing on in practice. Last season, Virginia Tech was first in the Big East in interceptions with 24 but seventh out of eight teams in passing yardage allowed with an average of 214 per game. Productive? Yes. Overly aggressive and prone to giving up the big play? Yes again to both. We don't want to be the weak spot of the team, but at the same time we do what we have to do and we stop the run first, Hall said. If we stop the running, and we turn them into a one-dimensional team, it's so much easier to stop the whole team. All of that accumulated overtime on the practice field will be tested in consecutive weeks in early November. That's when Virginia Tech takes on Miami and (on the road) Pittsburgh teams that boast two of the nation's most impressive passing offenses, teams that have given the Hokies fits in recent seasons. As long as Bud Foster is the Hokies' defensive coordinator, pass defense will be a distant second to run defense. It's a philosophy he has to sell to his defensive backs from the moment they first set foot on campus in Blacksburg: Swallow the ego, stop the run, force the pass, make the offense commit errors. If we do our job, it should be hard for a team to move the ball consistently against us, Foster said. A good rush makes good coverage, and good coverage makes a good rush. It all ties in together. It takes 11 to stop the run and 11 to stop the pass, too. Hall is a perfect example of the modern-day standout collegiate cornerback. He has some speed, a load of skill and a full arsenal of swagger and bravado to go along with it. How does a guy like that buy into the stop-the-run-first mentality? That's easy. There isn't any choice. That's just how we do it here at Virginia Tech, Hall said. We put nine in the box and man up on the corners. We do whatever we have to do. We're back there on an island. We don't get much help. The problem with preparing for teams that can throw the ball around like Miami and Pittsburgh is that Virginia Tech won't really have a comparable warm-up. Central Florida is primarily a passing offense. However, by the time the Hokies play the Hurricanes and the Panthers, it will have been more than two months since Tech's game against UCF. Despite leading a team with a talent level far below that of Miami and Pittsburgh, UCF quarterback Ryan Schneider was able to complete 24 of 36 passes for 259 yards, three touchdowns and one interception against Tech. Tavaris Capers, a junior receiver for the Golden Knights who stands all of 5-9 and 165 pounds, has sub-4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash. He lit up the likes of Hall and Williams, both All-Big East candidates, for nine receptions for 76 yards and two touchdowns. If Capers was capable of such things against Tech, what might Miami's Kevin Beard and Kellen Winslow and Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald do? Strong Tacklers, Good Chemistry Crawford, the elder statesman of the Hokies' secondary and its senior leader, sees a different approach in his fellow defensive backs this season. In the past, Tech has had conflicting personalities to deal with in its secondary.
Last season, there was free safety Willie Pile, the Hokies' emotional leader and team spokesman, paired with fellow senior cornerback Ronyell Whitaker, the team's resident loudmouth and scapegoat when things went awry in the passing defense. It was a volatile mix of dispositions, and though no one will come right out and say it, it had to be hard for a guy like Pile and a guy like Whitaker to get on the same page. I just feel that we're more focused, a lot more experienced and that tells the tale of this season, Crawford said. We get out there after practice and we work on our man-on-man coverages. It seems to be doing the job. If there's one positive about being a defensive back in a stop-the-run-at-all-costs defense, it's that everyone in the secondary knows how to tackle. Crawford and Williams spend so much time creeping toward the line of scrimmage that they wind up looking like fifth and sixth linebackers on most plays. Virginia Tech's win against Texas A&M was a testament to the tackling ability of the Hokies' secondary, especially in the middle of the field. Crawford led the Hokies with 18 tackles, including four for losses, and an interception. Williams was second with 12 tackles. We like to make tackles just as much as the other guys, Williams said. Being considered a ërun defense,' we'll take that. I guess we've just got to take it, understand it and play ball. Most of the time, we've got some guys in the secondary that are leading the team in tackles. We can come up and hit as well as we can cover. But covering may become the paramount concern. There's a lot to be said for preparing for passing arsenals such as Miami's and Pittsburgh's with live competition, but there's no way Tech will be able to simulate those two teams. That's where Foster comes into play. Having the confidence to stick with his defensive philosophy and fine-tune it has made him one of the nation's most respected assistant coaches. Stopping the run against Miami and Pittsburgh means halting Frank Gore and Brandon Miree, respectively. Gore, who has been slicing through defenses all season, cut apart the Hokies last fall for 161 yards. If Foster gets his defense to achieve job No. 1, then the Hokies have to contend with Miami quarterback Brock Berlin and Pittsburgh quarterback Rod Rutherford. Hall and cornerback Garnell Wilds will need help against those two passing offenses, but will Crawford and Williams have enough gas in their tanks to provide pass defense support while focusing on the run? It's a question that may determine whether the Hokies can avoid the late-season losses they have endured in the past three seasons, after starting 8-0, 6-0 and 8-0, respectively.