Before I get into the key issues I will focus on as I attend my first Hokie spring football game this Saturday, I would like to take a moment to also welcome Brian Marcolini to @TheKeyPlay's staff. I have been very impressed with his first post and he will be an excellent addition to the team.
So, after shooting off my mouth all last week about my concerns about the lack of offensive identity in the offense made worse by adding offensive plays that require a new fundamental skill set to be learned by the offensive line, quarterbacks, and running backs, now the Hokies coaching staff has an opportunity to make me drink a big ole glass of shut the hell up this Saturday. Here are some of the key things I will be looking for in the performance this weekend.
1) Offensive Identity
I exepect that if the Hokies extensively use a pistol and spread package, they should showcase the full array of BASE plays out of each set. I have spent some quite moments this week watching YouTube videos of Nevada's pistol offense, and there are a couple of base plays that I feel the Hokies must establish in order to utilize the set in the heat of the ACC schedule.
First and foremost, the Hokies offensive coaches must commit to establishing the mid-line read option dive as the base running play for the offense. The midline dive forces the defense to collapse and pressures the defensive end to either make a split second decision to take the dive or the QB, or it forces the defensive coaching staff to "give" the Hokies either a dive or a keep every play. The play is basic. The playside guard and tackle doubles the three technique defensive tackle, with the offensive tackle sliding off to cut the playside linebacker. The rest of the offensive line scoop blocks (cutting off backside pursuit) and the defensive end (or against a 4-3) the outside linebacker is unblocked. The QB then reads the DE. If the DE goes inside to take the dive, he keeps angling outside the tackle playside. If the DE goes to QB, the QB gives to the dive.
In order for the off-tackle play (which is what Cole scored the touchdown on) and for the slow developing counter action and play action to work, this read option series must be established. If the Hokies don't run this action at least 5 times during 1st team action, then the pistol is a gimmick, where they have taken a tiny bit of the offense as a change up, but long term defenses will be able to key on it.
My only concern with the Pistol and the current starters focuses on Logan Thomas and his effectiveness as a runner. In their read option set last year, the back moves from an offset postion across Logan's face. Logan is reading the option man (who could be a linebacker or an end) and either can hand to the TB at the mesh point or keep. The guard is also pulling, which can trap block a guy who THINKS he is the option man and who is reading the play rather than attacking. The strength of the play is that Logan, at an athletic 6'6" 255lbs, has momentum moving forward throughout the play, can burst ahead from the mesh point while defensive players are on their heels reading the play. See the winning score against Miami (take note of the pulling guard, the running back pulling a linebacker away from the play, and the other linebackers moving laterally rather than coming forward).
In the pistol, Logan's momentum is not moving towards the line of scrimmage, and if he reads keep, he would be running outside the end. While Logan is a good athlete, I am not sure he can go from a neutral position and explode to the corner as quickly as a Colin Kapernick.
My preference to the pistol is to spend more time featuring the counters to the spread look and read play Logan ran last year. The UVA game is chock full of examples.
- Double Dive (Logan fakes the dive and then follows the dive like a lead blocker (see 6:47 of this video)
- Play Action (7:00 of the video)
- Buck Sweep-essentially a wing-t play out of the gun and the counter to the base QB keeper play (0:50 of this video)
- Speed Option- (1:10 of this video)
Add a couple of variations (including the QB read where the QB goes outside and the RB dives) and you can win with just those plays.
2) Offensive Line Play
The Hokies are breaking in 4 new starters and all the Hokies offensive linemen are learning bits and pieces of new offensive concepts. The spring is about learning systems and gives the coaches an opportunity to evaluate talent. They may not pick out starters, but it allows them to weed out guys they KNOW can't play so they can come into fall camp with a solid 3 deep so they don't waste practice snaps on guys who can't contribute. I expect there to be some offensive line struggles, so I am going to try to focus more on the physical part of the game.
- Explosion on snap count and pad level. If the Hokies plan to run veer-oriented run blocking out of the pistol and spread, the offensive line must be explosive off the snap and be lower than the defensive man, especially on the crucial double team block playside. This has been a problem for Nick Becton in the past, and while he has looked good in the highlight reels, Painter, Benedict, and Miller have all played with poor pad level. You can play high sometimes when you are zone blocking. You absolutely can not do it veer blocking.
- Ability to block in space. The Hokies base running offense last year was almost exclusively a perimeter oriented offense that utilized point of attack down blocking coupled with pulling guards, tackles, and even the center to create a seal outside of the off-tackle gap. The off-tackle and counter plays out of the pistol require tackles to pull, while the spread power leads require the guards to pull. We have heard coaches challenge Bruce Benedict to be better in space, but if he isn't athletic enough to pull and find defensive backs in space, the opposing defense can key on David Wang and count on him to take them to the football. Michael Via was an excellent drive blocker, but also struggled in space. If the Hokies can't get the edge, then they will need to depend on a smashmouth style running game with very little outside of base zone and veer blocking (which would benefit the chances of JC Coleman being redshirted while Drew Harris gets snaps.)
- Depth development. The second team offense is going to get pushed around, but I want to see individual efforts from some of the 2nd team OL that make me feel comfortable that they can not be a liabilty if they are inserted. Shuman, Gibson, and Farris will be my focus. If they struggle, lets hope the coaches can turn that into a positive with future Superstud Offensive Left Tackle Wyatt Teller in town. (Psstt Wyatt, defense is for the guys who are too dumb to remember the play!)
- Effort. I love that Painter has scraped and clawed his way into being a starter. I love hearing that he has held his own against James Gayle. Now, I want to see him and the rest of the guys sustain big time effort and leg drive throughout the first team reps. At this point, only Benedict is really playing for a starting spot. With the weather getting hotter and the tiresome duty of spring practice coming to a close, you could see some letdown. I want to see guys with feet chopping and sustaining contact until the whistle blows. If not, we can expect more frustration next year.
3) Secondary Depth
I have a really good idea of what Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum bring to the table. I wouldn't play Fuller much, but I would make sure that the offensive and defensive coaches coordinated to have situations where Exum has to play man against Dyrell Roberts. I know Exum is athletic enough to cover a top ACC receiver, but I am not convinced based on his play last year that he will be effective at making the play on the ball. I would challenge him several times early, and get him off the field.
Second, I want to monitor how Kyshone Jarrett plays in run support. By all accounts, Bonner has been physical in the running game, but there has been relative silence about Jarrett's tackling. We can assume that Foster and Gray plan on using a ton of "Zero" coverage this season, which requires your safeties to have corner skill, but with the Hokies stunting and blitzing up front, you need dependable run support from the safeties to make a bust in "gap fits" a 7 yard run instead of a 50 yard touchdown, ESPECIALLY with Georgia Tech being first on the schedule.
Third, the second teamers really need to give a good effort. Michael Cole and Theo Norman have looked brutal in the small pieces of film that have leaked out. One injury in the secondary, and the Hokies could be in desperate straits. How do the Hokies address these concerns if they decide that Aromire, Cole, Norman and whoever the 4th corner will be can't cut it? Are any of the other freshmen besides Manning ready to play? Does the coaching staff bite the bullet and move Van Dyke back to rover (where he has been fantastic as a #2 going against #1's) because they are comfortable with Tweedy and Gouvia-Winslow? The easy solution is to have one of those guys step up, and then secure a job in the fall.
I want to walk out of the scrimmage with a nickname for every member of the defensive line as well as a the defensive line unit as a whole. Dominant performances is the only ticket to that goal. I want to see explosion off the snap count. I want to see great pad level, burning pursuit, and effective utilization of pass rush leverage techniques. I will be harsh in my criticism, because they are being counted on to carry this defense next year. Anything short of the entire unit being dominant, and I don't think the Hokie can win the ACC next year. They must be dominant.
As good as Bruce Taylor is, Jack Tyler's film versus UVA last year stands as one of the best defensive performances I can recall watching. If Taylor is healthy, they still have to find a way to get Tyler on the field. Does that come at the expense of Tariq Edwards, who was outstanding in space but sometime struggled in physical smashmouth games? I am not sure, but it is a good problem to have.
As far as Chase Williams, pursuit and tackling will be key points. By all accounts, the coaching staff will trust him on the field if Edwards isn't healthy and they don't move Taylor to backer. However, the other mikes and backers (Laiti, Dinardo) have not looked impressive on tape. When they are on the field, I will see how they take on blocks and perform their gap fit responsibility, but with my focus on the offense, I am going to guess that we will see true freshmen on the depth chart at the linebacker spot next season. (And, I am accepting $10 bets for people who disagree with my assertion that Trey Edmunds will be a linebacker. I am sure he will be a linebacker at the backer spot.)
Thanks everyone for all your feedback on previous columns. I look forward to talking with you at The Key Play tailgate and discussing what we see on Saturday here next week!
Until then, WHO IS GOING TO MAKE A PLAY?