Virginia Tech is preparing to head down to Tallahassee as the Hokies and Florida State are starting to make their final preparations for their primetime Labor Day showdown. This game is full of interesting matchups for various reasons whether it's veteran playmakers vs. new starters or size differences that could create some schematic opportunities.
With that said, here are our key matchups for the Hokies and Seminoles.
LT Silas Dzansi vs. DE Brian Burns
Silas Dzansi had an incredible offseason going from not even on the two-deep last year to emerging as Virginia Tech's left tackle during spring practice and solidifying his spot even more during fall camp. Now, Dzansi will make his first career start against a Florida State team that has one of the ACC's best defensive linemen that doesn't play for Clemson, Brian Burns.
Burns has been a playmaker on the Seminoles' defensive line with 23 total tackles for loss and 13 sacks in his first two seasons in Blacksburg including 13.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season. This season, Burns is now the focal point of a FSU defensive line with a pair of new starters and returning starting DT DeMarcus Christmas who only had 4.5 tackles for loss last season.
Burns is a lighter defensive end at 6'5'' and 235 pounds, but he compensates for that with significantly above-average speed and athleticism that makes him a dangerous edge rusher and the type of guy who may require a TE on his side on some run plays to limit his ability to get around the corner. Burns also has great defensive awareness which helped him have three forced fumbles last season and has a great motor that helps him finish tackles or make some tackles that he wouldn't have made without his hustle to get back in a play.
For Dzansi, his reactions off the snap will be critical especially on passing plays where Burns has the speed to blow by any offensive tackle who has a slow step off the snap. In addition, Dzansi will have to make sure that he forces Burns out wide enough on opposite sides to take him out of the play rather than allow him to use his speed to in the backfield and blow up a play from behind or even surprise a ball carrier and force a fumble.
For Brad Cornelsen, he'll be hoping that Dzansi is able to slow Burns down some, but may also have to find ways to use a tight end or a running back to give Dzansi some help in different situations. If Burns can force Cornelsen into giving Dzansi some help, it could limit VT's ability to create some one-on-one matchups down the field for quick and play action passes.
WRs Damon Hazelton, Eric Kumah vs. CBs Levonta Taylor, Kyle Meyers
One of the most interesting matchups of this game will come on the outside between VT's starting outside WR duo of Damon Hazelton and Eric Kumah, and FSU's starting CBs Levonta Taylor and Kyle Meyers. Part of the reason for intrigue is the fact that you have two smaller, speedy cornerbacks who are both under 185 pounds facing off against two big, possession receivers who have the size to match their styles with both being 6'2'' and over 220 pounds.
Hazelton was a red zone threat two years ago at Ball State leading them in receiving touchdowns as a true freshman while Kumah emerged as the season went along as the bigger target that became better at using his size to his advantage against smaller cornerbacks.
Given that Virginia Tech is likely to use three or four receiver sets a lot during this game, you can expect to see some one-on-one matchups on the outside. When the Hokies do get those matchups, expect to see the Hokies try to run some pass plays to allow Hazelton and Kumah the chance for some 50-50 balls down the field or some curl and slant routes where they can use their size to try to box out the smaller cornerbacks.
Taylor and Meyers are both intriguing young cornerbacks, but Virginia Tech has the opportunity to take advantage of a size advantage at cornerback with Hazelton and Kumah, both of whom have shown that they have the ability to win 50-50 balls at a fairly high rate and can use their size to their advantage. If Hazelton and Kumah can do that Monday night, it will create some significant opportunities for Josh Jackson that could be an x-factor for Virginia Tech.
DB/LB Khalil Ladler vs. WR Nyqwan Murray
Many were surprised when Khalil Ladler was named the starter at whip linebacker/nickelback over Devon Hunter. Part of the reason for Ladler being chosen was due to his versatility having spent time at cornerback and safety, and showing to be fairly comfortable in coverage.
However, Ladler will have a challenge on his hands working in the slot against Florida State's most proven WR Nyqwan Murray especially with Bud Foster likely to run a good amount of his trademark man coverage.
Murray wasn't officially named a starter by Florida State, but the senior slot receiver is likely to have a large role in the Seminoles' passing game especially as the only Seminole with a proven track record having over 60 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards in his collegiate career.
Murray is what you would expect of a prototypical speedy slot receiver with the ability to stretch the field or be effective on quick passes for Willie Taggart. One other benefit is the fact that Murray is the only FSU receiver who has played significant time with Deondre Francois at quarterback. That chemistry from past seasons could be important in an opening game with Francois having a largely new receiving corps along with playing his first game in a year.
The question for Ladler is will he have the speed and man coverage skills to stay up with Murray in those situations. If he doesn't, Bud Foster may have to give Ladler some safety help or even make some lineup adjustments to even have Ladler work on the outside with someone like Bryce Watts sliding inside at times given Watts' speed. However, don't be surprised if the Hokies run a decent amount of zone coverage given the youth of this team and how Bud Foster has said in the past how he has looked to add some more zone wrinkles to his defense with the increase in dual-threat QBs.
Photo Credit: Harley Taylor
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