Over the last two decades, Virginia Tech has consistently had the best defenses of any team across all college football led by college football’s best defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Foster’s defenses have never been a conventional 4-3 but have had different positions built for Foster’s defense that have made the Hokies shine.
Arguably the most important position in Foster’s defense is the mike linebacker spot in the heart of the front 7. On a good amount of plays, the mike linebacker is the main one responsible for making sure he fills the right hole and prevents the running back from getting any sort of gain. Get caught in a block or fill the wrong hole, and the door opens up for the opposing team to get a big run.
Over the last couple seasons, the play at the mike linebacker just hasn’t seemed to have been as good with fans blaming some of the mike linebacker struggles for some of the big plays that the Hokies have given up along with the success mobile QBs have had running the football against Virginia Tech lately.
In 2015, Andrew Motuapuaka was one of the players that frustrated fans the most whether it was understandable or not. In 2016, there is no doubt that the pressure, especially from fans, will be high on Motuapuaka to step up and be a leader in a front 7 that lost 5 of 7 starters from last season.
Motuapuaka finished the 2015 season with 73 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 1 interception, 3 pass breakups, 3 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries for what is a pretty good stat line for a mike linebacker other than the fairly low number of tackles despite the fact that he only played in 11 games.
Overall, Motuapuaka wasn’t that bad in 2015 but despite making some great plays, the 757 native also made some big mistakes and guessed wrongly on multiple run plays that turned into big gains or touchdowns for opponents. Of course, plenty of mike linebackers have had a few but Motuapuaka guessed wrong at a rate that is too high while not being as aggressive as he needed to be to prevent some other big runs.
As one of the top returners in the front 7 for 2016, the pressure will be on Motuapuaka even more to be one of the stars of the defense and help make the Hokies a top 5 defense nationally even with the multiple fresh faces.
Andrew Motuapuaka will have a couple of fresh faces next to him in the linebacking corps with the talented Tremaine Edmunds replacing Deon Clarke, and looking like an upgrade over Clarke this spring, along with Anthony Shegog at the whip linebacker spot though the Hokies may go with a nickel package a lot more than they use a three-linebacker set this fall if their Spring Game use of the nickel is a good indication.
Despite the upside of Edmunds, there is no doubt that the pressure will be on Motuapuaka to not only put up some good numbers but also avoid making too many mistakes as he did last season.
Fans and coaches will be looking for Motuapuaka to make smarter and better decisions in choosing which holes to fill. Motuapuaka has gotten to use virtual reality technology in practice which has proven to help while he also has arguably college football’s best defensive coordinator coaching him, Bud Foster.
At the same time, Motuapuaka will also need to play with more risk and not as conservative which can lead to a lot more mistakes or missed tackles. Bud Foster’s defense is built on taking risks and playing aggressive, and the Hokies will need Motuapuaka to be ready to play not only with an edge but also take risks and while that may lead to a few big plays if he makes the wrong decision, it could stop a lot more big runs than he did last season.
Andrew Motuapuaka definitely has shown that he has the potential but the Hokies will need him to step up in 2016. If Motuapuaka does, Virginia Tech could have a top 5 defense statistically among all schools but if not, Motuapuaka may have a position battle on his hands next spring with Carson Lydon.