Many thought the Hokies’ defense could be historically great this season; instead, it’s been historically inept.
After allowing 262 yards to North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard, the most one single player has ever put up against Virginia Tech, this highly touted unit is facing some serious questions.
“It may be the worst tackling I’ve seen by our perimeter in a long, long time,” said Bud Foster, defensive coordinator. “There’s no excuses for the yardage they got, it’s just poor fits, poor angles, missed tackles.”
The defensive backs looked particularly exposed on Bernard’s 62-yard touchdown run on fourth down, largely due to some fundamental execution issues the team is looking to correct.
“It’s just too much running,” said head coach Frank Beamer. “When the back gets 262 yards, you can’t win, and not many backs have done that against us.”
The secondary certainly struggled against the run, but the defensive line didn’t exactly do its part either. Players like Derrick Hopkins and J.R. Collins were frequently moved off the ball by Carolina’s offensive line, placing the tackling onus on the second level of the defense.
Despite these challenges, pass coverage was one element where the defense had some semblance of success. After being burned repeatedly by Cincinnati, Exum rebounded to help the team hold quarterback Bryn Renner to just 194 yards on the day.
“I probably played the ball a lot better this game,” Exum said. “I just played the receivers eyes and hands and played the ball better those first couple drives when they tried to come at me on my side.”
Although Kyle Fuller has traditionally been the team’s best player in coverage, the Tar Heels frequently beat him on post routes on Saturday. Coaches attribute these problems to his evolving role in the defense and the fact that he is playing through an injury, but it’s crucial for the team that he rebound quickly.
“Kyle’s playing with one shoulder right now,” Foster said. “Say what you want to, but he’s an outstanding player, and we were blitzing him, we weren’t asking him to play a lot of coverage on the corner spot, so he’s got to be consistently better.”
While these issues are major ones, the team has already begun to attempt to remedy its tackling problems in practice.
“(During practice,) instead of tagging off and stuff, we’re making sure we’re holding each other accountable in wrapping the ball carrier up, just making sure his forward progress is stopped, so hopefully that will translate to the game,” Exum said.
The coaching staff remains confident the defense is resilient enough to work through these difficulties and attempt to get the season back on track.
“We’re going to fight through it,” Beamer said. “The kids have been trying, it’s just not coming together quite like it needs to, but we’ve still got a shot at this thing, so we need to get it right for next week.”
Considering the strength of the team’s upcoming schedule, it’s clear it’ll have to back up these claims about improvement to fulfill some of the promise of the preseason.
“We’re getting ready to play Duke, who’s hot, and we’re going to have to play our tail off against them,” Foster said. “We’ll have to play Florida State, Clemson and Miami in a row, so we’ve got to get this thing right, or it’s going to be a long winter for