A public service announcement for Frank Beamer and Jim Weaver: The moment you placed the empty national championship trophy case in your facility, the stakes were raised. No longer was the status quo, as unlikely as it is for a program in the heart of rural Virginia with no history of being nationally relevant, acceptable. A conference championship like 1995, a season remembered by older Hokie fans like me as a magical season, now means a guffaw and "I don't want to fly to Miami." The bar is higher, and you moved it with that trophy case. Unfortunately, this program is trending in the wrong direction. Virginia Tech used to win with a dominant defense, great special teams, and a ball control offense that played like a bully and limited mistakes. Offenses are catching up to the defense. Special teams have been in shambles for several seasons. The offense lacks any identity, other than being the team that struggling defenses circle on their schedule to get back on track.
I will be frank. I almost did not do a film review this week. We have beaten the dead horses over and over again: the nonsensical running back rotation, poor offensive line leg drive and fundamentals, poor reads, throws, and pre-snap recognition by Logan Thomas, abysmal effort by the wide receivers, poor special teams, linebackers who are limited in space, and defensive backs who are not gifted enough to lock down receivers in man. The Miami game put a big spotlight on each one of these problems. Miami did everything they could to hand that game to Virginia Tech on a silver platter. Those were two woefully undisciplined college football teams that the nation watched on Thursday night, and ultimately, the Hokies lack of attention to detail derailed any attempt to gain a victory or make a late run at the ACC Championship game.
The defense played well enough to win the football game, and what weaknesses they displayed have been well documented in this column. At the same time, harbor no illusions. They are not good enough to stop an elite offense without being able to generate huge amounts of pressure on the quarterback. The lack of speed and coverage ability makes it difficult to stop safety valve routes from becoming big plays, and the secondary just is not good enough to be effective for four quarters without a monster pass rush. While some players stood out with terrific efforts—James Gayle was electric on film, both getting to the quarterback utilizing terrific leverage technique against Seantrell Henderson and forcing the run. Miami spent the whole night running away from Gayle—many others just have not stepped up. J.R. Collins barely saw the field. Ronnie Vandyke played tentatively against the run, and in the 4th quarter was manhandled by Miami's tight ends. Jack Tyler had several ugly busts in coverage. Antone Exum was turned around in coverage several times, and twice looked averse to contact providing run support on long Miami runs. Florida State has been a team that has struggled against the Hokies unless they can beat Tech over the top. This secondary may be the cure to the FSU losing streak against the Hokies.
The offense and special teams are in disarray right now. I had several passionate discussions about those issues with Key Play posters and staff immediately following the game, and one parallel comes to mind. The poor attention to detail and lack of discipline looks eerily similar to the end of the Bobby Bowden era. Examine the similarities to the Virginia Tech run.
After an extended period of dominance (almost a decade straight of BCS bowls and 2 national championships), FSU went into a long period of mediocrity. Talent was high, but Bowden lost talented assistants and his staff became filled with cronies.
FSU's offense became a running joke, as the simplistic scheme which incorporated elements here and there of other new concepts was shut down by less talented defenses.
Changing offensive schemes negated FSU's formerly fearsome pass rush, which evened the playing field against their more talented defensive players.
Bowden used his power to name his son offensive coordinator, even though he had been a career wide receivers coach. The offense became a huge liability under his watch. Compare with Shane Beamer. (Great recruiter, but as the position coach, doesn't he warrant some blame for the insane running back rotation?)
Attention to detail went by the wayside, and we are left with numerous images of Bowden on the sidelines, looking baffled at his team's inability to execute. We have seen that image a bunch of Beamer this season.
Ultimately, Florida State forced change by forcing Bowden to accept Jimbo Fisher as the new offensive coordinator. Fisher had autonomy and started to clean house on offense, and then brought in his own staff when he took over full time. I don't think the same will exists for Beamer, but he clearly needs to accept that he has people on his staff that can't teach the game well enough for his team to win a National Championship. If that is his goal, he needs to be an administrator and bring in autonomous coaches who match his vision, but will recruit and teach their own system. Beamer must decide on an offensive identity, and then find an offensive coordinator who has the same vision but who can teach and recruit players that make that system work, even if they are not from Virginia.
Mike O'Cain, Curt Newsome, and Offensive Morass
Exhibit A in the case to overhaul the offensive coaching staff is the game plan for Miami. All season, the Hokies have leaned heavily on changing their identity to a spread/zone read football team. During the off-week, the Hokies essentially scrapped their entire offense and went back to the pro "I" / 1 back offense that we saw last season. The Hokies ran 32 offensive plays in the first half, and 22 of those plays came from the I formation, the one-back two tight end set, or pass pro from the shotgun. Of the 8 remaining plays, only two came from the pistol, and of the six "read option" plays, four came inside the 20 yard line.
Last season, we talked about identity. This season, we were seeing a new identity being adopted, but failures in execution and the messy running back rotation curtailed success. Instead of attempting to perfect the offense and deal with the growing pains, the first half against Miami represented a complete panic adjustment to the offense that O'Cain coached last season and prior to coming to Virginia Tech. As the game progressed, the Hokies reverted again, back to the read and veer option game and pass pro, and had more success, but ultimately could not overcome the mercurial play of Logan Thomas or an abysmal effort by the offensive line against a terrible Miami front. Ultimately, I saw an offense that has zero faith that the play called in the huddle will succeed, and without buy in from the players, no offensive coordinator can be successful. In this case, between the erratic play calling and the complete regression of Logan Thomas, I don't see how Mike O'Cain can be retained after this season.
I will use the Boston College week to discuss Thomas in more detail, so I will focus on my old position, the offensive line, and fellow Emory & Henry alum Curt Newsome. I said in the offseason that this line grouping, while inexperienced, had the physical size, strength, and athleticism to be a better offensive line than last season. The allocation of playing time is baffling. We have discussed the poor fundamentals of the group, which carries over from previous seasons. Against the Hurricanes, they were not just fundamentally poor. The 118th ranked defensive line repeatedly manhandled the Hokie hogs throughout stretches of the game, and the victims of the whippings were players who were dependable early in the year. Florida State showcases perhaps four of the five best defensive tackles in the ACC, and a terrific edge rusher. Virginia Tech may be able to handle FSU's offense, but FSU's defensive line presents a huge talent to an undisciplined, fundamentally unsound and poorly coached unit.
Most alarming to me is the regression of Vinston Painter. Painter repeated exhibited outstanding athleticism and motor earlier in the season. He was an effective drive blocker, and perhaps more than any other lineman, he was getting down field and helping bust open big runs by getting to the second level. Over the last two games, that Vinston Painter has vanished. Instead, Painter has looked disinterested blocking on the backside of running plays, and he has been atrocious in pass protection. Against Clemson, I counted Painter as responsible for a sack and three quarterback hurries. Against Miami, he performed even worse. His weakness is letting defensive ends get leverage and beating him to his inside shoulder. For a right tackle, this allows the end to be directly in the line of vision of the quarterback, so even limited pressure can impact the quality of the throw.
Here we have Painter beaten inside after a simple X stunt by the defensive tackle and end.
Painter has struggled with stunts most of the season, and here he appears to be focused outside as if a safety or corner may be blitzing in anticipation of him getting sucked inside by the end's loop to the interior. The tackle gets inside leverage on Painter's left shoulder, and he does not appear to have the strength to force the tackle back inside so Thomas can break contain. Thomas feels the heat, and makes a poor high throw to Roberts that is deflected and almost intercepted. Cardinal sin number one if you are a tackle: DON'T GET BEAT INSIDE. I wish Miami was an isolated incident, but we saw the same scenario play out on film against Clemson as well.
Still, as a former lineman, I appreciate that sometimes you get caught thinking too much in pass protection, and if you become passive you will make poor reads. However, NOBODY who has Painter's physical ability (remember the Batman-like picture from the first fall scrimmage?) should have this happen to them.
He was planted into the ground like a spring tulip. You would think that the running game would be a saving grace for Painter, and while he still has moments of brilliance, he is also being beaten way too often at the point of attack.
Here Painter is completely caught flat footed by a Miami stunt, and instead of going to the next level, he turns around and watches the play. If you make a mistake, don't make it tentatively. Painter has been the most highly touted offensive lineman to come to Tech since Andrew Brown (yikes, how did that work out) and regardless of what Painter's culpability is in his failure to improve, Curt Newsome clearly has not helped him either. If Laurence Gibson is the future at right tackle and Newsome refuses to give him work at guard, then I would seriously consider getting Gibson some reps at right tackle. I certainly don't want his first start to come against Alabama, and playing a fifth year senior who won't be part of the program next year doesn't help the future. (I extend those sentiments to some of the other fifth year seniors as well.)
Sadly, Painter was not the only bad actor during the Clemson game. Every player on the offensive line struggled during different stretches of the game. The same old problems reared their ugly heads. Nick Becton hops out of his stance instead of taking a strong lead step and fails to scoop block the defensive end on a sprint draw.
My guy Brent Benedict gets dead feet in pass blocking and looks like he is on ice skates.
And, it would not be a film review on the offensive line without David Wang's feet going dead. Here, Virginia Tech runs their base off tackle power play.
Becton, Wang, and the tight end block down, and the fullback kicks out the end man on the line. Wang's feet go dead, and the Hurricane defensive tackle bench presses him back into the hole.
The tight end and the fullback both miss their blocks, forcing Benedict (who is pulling from the back side) to take the first guy who crosses his face rather than the filling linebacker. The entire hole gets jammed up, prompting the following sound in my head.
Ultimately, it is frustrating to keep beating these guys down. The Hokies moved the ball with a lineup of Painter-Benedict-Farris-Via-Becton in the 3rd quarter. But, these breakdowns coupled with the odd player rotation (and not playing the five best guys) can't be only the byproduct of having players that are not talented enough, especially when I can see Nick Becton MASH like this one play, and then fail on a simple scoop block the next.
Newsome is the common thread, and he needs to be the first coach to go in an overhaul.
Virginia Tech has come too far as a program to play out the string grasping at straws to make the Belk Bowl. The last three games of this season need to be about laying the foundation for a return to dominance, not hoping to squeeze out a couple of wins. If I was the person responsible for drawing the roadmap, here is what it would look like.
If a senior is starting, and there is a talented backup who will start next year playing behind them, limit the number of snaps that senior has. With Dyrell Roberts, Marcus Davis, Nick Becton, Vinston Painter, Corey Fuller, Eric Martin, Antoine Hopkins, Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, Alonzo Tweedy, and Bruce Taylor, this is a .500 football team. Some of those players, like Bruce Taylor, must play due to the lack of depth at backer. However, this is the time to determine which guys can help you next year.
I have been a big proponent of Ronnie Vandyke being an every down player, but he has struggled over the last two games. Still, the move of Tweedy to starting whip or playing JGW again, while probably deserved due to special teams efforts, isn't a move for the future. Painter and Becton have been the most solid offensive linemen, but is it wise to have Laurence Gibson and Mark Shuman take their first meaningful snaps of big time college football against Alabama, or should they warm up this year with Boston College? Frank Beamer must focus on the big picture.
Beamer must also identify dead wood and open up scholarships. With Virginia getting ready to have two to three years of fantastic high school prospects, current players need to earn their scholarships or move on. Next season, the Hokies will use four scholarships on tight ends, none of which can redshirt and two of which came to Tech as defensive linemen. The whip position has turned into a dumping ground for guys who washed out of other positions, yet the most talented never gets to see the field. The linebacking corps is one injury next season away from being a disaster, and besides DJ Coles and Demetri Knowles, who is the playmaker on offense next year? Get as much space as possible, and move to step three.
Turn up recruiting efforts. It is absolutely critical that the Hokies secure LOI's from Holland Fisher, Kendall Fuller, Drew Harris, and Wyatt Teller this offseason, but the net needs to be widened. The staff must restock the offensive line, which doesn't have a true freshman or redshirt freshman that impresses me as a quality ACC starter other than Augie Conte. Get into Pennsylvania and try to make some inroads while Penn State is down (the loss to Pitt doesn't help.) Da'Shawn Hand is the number one priority next season, but Beamer cannot lose Andrew Brown and Quin Blanding to UVA (or ACC schools.) Also, resources must be used to make more inroads into Ohio, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. If you want to be a national power, recruit like a national power. Delray Beach only has so many gems.
Bryan Stinespring should be moved to recruiting coordinator, Shane Beamer to another position, and Frank Beamer must hire an autonomous offensive coordinator with a philosophy that matches Beamer's vision for winning. There is no place on this staff for Mike O'Cain, Curt Newsome, and Kevin Sherman (see wide receiver blocking videos). If Beamer wants them to run the pistol/spread/veer, then go to Nevada's coaching tree. Power I? Find someone with a Harbaugh pedigree like Willie Taggart at Western Kentucky. Pass happy? Tony Franklin is there to be had. Regardless of the system and the coach that is brought in, they must have autonomy to run and recruit the offense their way. Going back to the I and one-back this week had Beamer's fingerprints all over it. He doesn't understand offensive football, and never has. His decision making shouldn't go past selecting the coach and deciding on when to go for fourth down.
If Beamer doesn't at least bring in a legitimate offensive line coach, I will riot.
Thanks for your feedback everyone. Let's hope Thursday night doesn't turn into the Battle of the Little Bighorn.