Virginia Tech’s defense had rightly been considered the Hokies’ strength through the early portion of the 2022 schedule. In fact, ACC Network broadcasters highlighted it before the game against Pitt, as Virginia Tech’s defense ranked in the top 25 in several categories, including total defense and third-down defense.
But after the last two weeks, there’s no way to look at Virginia Tech’s defense in the same light.
In two games, Virginia Tech has posted some of the worst defensive numbers in the country. Consider these statistics over Tech’s last two games, both of which have been losses:
Virginia Tech’s defensive problems can be blamed on all three levels of the defense, and improvements need to be made in all three.
It’s Time for a Youth Movement At Corner
Dorian Strong has missed Virginia Tech’s last two contests and that’s undoubtedly had an impact on the Hokies’ ability to defend the pass. However, there are two veterans behind him that should be capable of holding down the fort.
That’s not been the case.
Both North Carolina and Pittsburgh picked on Virginia Tech’s cornerbacks to varying degrees of success. Drake Maye had a monstrous performance, throwing for 363 yards and three touchdowns, although with that said, many of his throws were pretty easy reads.
Armani Chatman is a redshirt senior that’s started 20 games and played in 44 overall. He’s an experienced player, but he’s been extremely vulnerable this season.
North Carolina’s first touchdown against the Hokies came on a misdirection play near the goal line. Chatman’s man ran a crosser underneath while Maye executed the play-action. Chatman was caught looking in the backfield and once he realized it was a pass, he slipped when trying to change direction. The man running into his zone, Kamari Morales, ran free for the easy throw.
Chatman’s been exposed lately, but the advanced metrics argue that Chatman has struggled for most of the season. His lowest Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade of the season came in Week 1 vs. Old Dominion with a 43.3. Chatman’s game grades against North Carolina and Pittsburgh were 58.9 and 56.7, respectively. Both are well below average.
Brion Murray, another veteran, has filled in for Strong and served as Tech’s third cornerback. Murray has struggled mightily as well — his PFF grade thus far is a 60.9.
Murray’s limitations were on display against both North Carolina and Pittsburgh. The Panthers went after him early and often, while the Tar Heels took him downfield and forced him to make a play. Unfortunately, he didn’t.
It’s time for Virginia Tech to explore other options. Strong’s status as the No. 1 cornerback shouldn’t be challenged, as he’s far and away the best at his position. But both Mansoor Delane and DJ Harvey have looked and graded out better than their other teammates in limited snaps. Delane and Harvey are the future at cornerback, and the future needs to start now.
Poor Play in the Middle
Of the three levels, Virginia Tech’s linebackers have had the toughest time over the last two contests. Three of Tech’s normal linebackers — Dax Hollifield, Keli Lawson and Jaden Keller — have been successfully attacked in both the run and pass game.
The more glaring issues are in the pass game, where Tech’s linebackers have looked wholly out of place. North Carolina must’ve came into their game against the Hokies wanting to stretch the linebackers vertically, because that’s exactly what the Tar Heels did.
Carolina had the most success targeting Lawson, a young player who can hopefully learn from this moving forward. Carolina beat Lawson twice on what was essentially the same route.
Lawson looked lost in coverage. As he becomes more familiar with Brent Pry’s defense, this should alleviate itself.
Jaden Keller, another young linebacker with plenty of snaps in his future, looks like he’s still learning too. On this touchdown run by Israel Abanikanda, Keller looks unsure of what he’s seeing and rather than attacking, gets caught flat-footed by an offensive lineman.
While Lawson and Keller are still getting their feet wet, Dax Hollifield is not. Yes, this is his first year in Pry’s scheme, but Hollifield has seen enough to look better than he has over the last two weeks. Much like Lawson, Carolina went after Hollifield vertically and succeeded.
Hollifield was spelled at various points by Will Johnson, who also gave up a long completion downfield. From my notes, Keshon Artis wasn’t given a shot.
Veterans Struggling Up Front
Some of Virginia Tech’s poor linebacker play against Pitt can be laid at the feet of the defensive line, which also struggled with their run fits.
For this play, watch as both Jaylen Griffin and Mario Kendricks attack the edge while Pitt’s offensive line blocks right. Pitt’s left tackle is untouched, allowing him to get to the second level and take on Hollifield. Meanwhile, the tight end splits left and successfully blocks Griffin. By this point, Abanikanda has already run around Kendricks and there’s nobody left at the second level to clean up.
Sure, Hollifield should have been able to stand his ground and force Abanikanda to cut one way or the other, but Tech’s defensive linemen can’t allow blockers to get to the second level that easy.
For what it’s worth, PFF gave Norell Pollard and Josh Fuga excellent grades against Pitt. Kendricks fell just short of a 70 grade, while Griffin, Cole Nelson and CJ McCray all finished with sub-70 grades.
North Carolina might have the best offense that Virginia Tech will see all season, which leads one to believe that Tech should have a better go of things against the pass moving forward. The same might be said for Pitt, who benefitted from their best rushing performance in school history.
With that said, Miami comes into Lane Stadium this Saturday with an offense that ranks 22nd in yardage. The ‘Canes have looked less lethal of late, however, with a 24-point performance against North Carolina, a 31-point performance against Middle Tennessee and a nine-point showing against Texas A&M a few weeks ago.
Devin Leary’s shoulder issue could linger into NC State’s Oct. 27 tilt with the Hokies. That would certainly benefit Virginia Tech, as the Wolfpack have enough skill position players for Tech to worry about.
Virginia Tech’s defense has a couple of chances to rebound before returning home on Nov. 5 against Georgia Tech. Pry and Chris Marve must find a way to protect their linebackers in coverage, specifically against vertical routes, and get their defense to play with better gap integrity.
Getting Dorian Strong healthy wouldn’t hurt either.