Work in Sports
No laughing matter
Opposing coaches fret over facing Vick
By Mitch Vingle, Special to CNNSI.com
If you want to watch coaches morph into comedians, ask them how to stop Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick.
"Get a hold of David Copperfield,'' said Pittsburgh assistant Paul Rhoads.
"You get put in jail for that,'' said Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews.
The problem with the coaches' stand-up routines is that, when the games are over, Vick is always standing up.
"There's only one Michael Vick," said Pitt head coach Walt Harris. "Thank God.''
The Hokies' Vick had probably the most spectacular freshman season in college football history. He finished third in Heisman Trophy voting, which equaled the highest level ever reached by a freshman. He was the first player in Division I history to win a league Player of the Year Award (Big East) as well as Rookie of the Year honors.
Oh, yeah. And he led his team to the Jan. 4 national championship showdown with Andrews' Florida State Seminoles. The Hokies lost, 46-29, but Vick created a bowl record: most dropped jaws caused by a freshman.
"After the game,'' said Andrews, "I went up to Vick. I said, 'Son, that was the best exhibition I've ever seen.'"
Vick is lethal because he's a running quarterback who led the nation in pass efficiency. He's fast enough to leave even the swift Seminole defenders grasping for air. He was recently electronically timed at 4.25 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
"We have a bunch of guys who can really run,'' said FSU's Andrews, "and they still couldn't touch him.''
So what's a defensive coordinator to do? The consensus is to try and keep Vick in the pocket. Then pray.
"I don't think you can stop him,'' said Rhoads, Pitt's defensive coordinator. "You try to contain him, slow him down a little.
"He might be a guy you try to keep in the pocket. There are a lot of guys you try to flush out of there. But when he's in the athletic vein, like Vick, flushing him from the pocket hurts. Flushing Vick really hurts because he can run or throw on the run.
"So you keep him in the pocket and if you can get to him, great. If you can't, let him work from there.''
West Virginia defensive coordinator Steve Dunlap had as much success against Vick as any coach during the regular season. The Hokies needed a last-season field goal to win 22-20 in Morgantown. But it was Vick's dazzling 26-yard dash that helped set up the Shayne Graham kick.
"The first thing you have to realize is that if Vick wants to get outside of containment, he will,'' said Dunlap. "He runs a 4.25. Your best pass rusher isn't going to run 4.25.
"Next, you have to understand scramble principles. What the scramble does is break down your pass coverages. Everything is geared for four seconds or less.
"When we had Major Harris [at quarterback] we would teach the receiver what to do when Major scrambled. It looked a lot like sandlot ball, but it wasn't. He got to throw the ball in six seconds, not four. And that's the worst thing that can happen to a defensive secondary.
"What we did [against Tech],'' Dunlap continued, "is max blitzed. We brought the ranch. We had all our guys on one level. We took a big risk. We had the defensive end and tackle slow rush. Miami and some others did that too. But when you blitz, you'd better be damn careful.''
WVU also took the opposite approach, rushing three and dropping eight into coverage - with one of those eight tracking Vick.
"Speed's the key here,'' said Dunlap. "He's not a 4.8 quarterback. He's a 4.3 quarterback. And it's a wide field. We want the ball thrown in three seconds and it's not going to happen with Vick. He's got great poise and won't panic. He's the real deal.''
Andrews was the lone defensive coordinator to escape Vick's freshman season with a win. But, he points out, there was nothing easy about the task.
"The thing that makes Vick so difficult to defend is he throws the ball so well,'' said Andrews. "Tech ran some flood routes that really killed people last year. If you didn't defend that well, they got big chunks. So we came up with a way to take that away. The problem was, by taking the pattern away, we made him run. We forced a guy who could really run to run.''
Andrews said Tech's coaching staff helps Vick.
"The first thing you know is they're not going to let him sit in the pocket,'' said the coordinator. "They're going to put the ball on the corner. They are going to run the option. They are going to run nakeds, bootlegs, drop sprints. (Tech offensive coordinator Ricky) Bustle does a great job moving him around.''
So, said Andrews, you counter.
"You try to hem [Vick] up,'' said the Seminole assistant. "You try to keep him in the pocket. And you prefer him to pitch the ball than run it himself.''
"You try to hit on him a little bit,'' said Andrews. "With every great runner, you try to wear him down a little. In the fourth quarter [of the Sugar Bowl] I thought we did that. But we could never totally shut him down.''
Indeed, Vick was left standing. Leaving the coaches to their stand-up.
"You don't play many people who can do what he does,'' said Andrews. "Thank goodness.''
Mitch Vingle covers the Big East for the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette. He will write a weekly CNNSI.com conference insider this season.