French on the Bench: Progress is Slow, But Sure

The result of an accurate throw and good route design.

image via: 

HokieSports.com

We are now over two weeks into the new era of Virginia Tech football, and the changes in identity that we hoped to see are starting to take. At the same time, reading the comments here and on social media, there seems to be an some apprehension about the continued struggles to run the football, especially in the red zone. I have spent the last two weeks reviewing what little bit of film I have access to, reading commentary from the beat writers, posters here, and speaking on the phone with people who attended the scrimmage whose football acumen I respect. I want to share some of the observations I have had and perhaps touch on some things that have not received much ink over the last two weeks.

Unleashing Hell- The Bud Foster Defense

I have documented numerous times how Bud Foster's defensive approach altered from a five defensive back look that bent, but didn't break against the run, and forced turnovers in the passing game, to an attacking 4-4 defense which aligned the rover as a middle linebacker and the backer as the edge contain to the weak side. Despite coming into spring practice with only one experienced cornerback and very little depth at linebacker, Foster has retained this alignment and incorporated a wide variety of stunts and zone blitzes that have been so ferocious that it has been difficult really to assess the skill position players on the second team offense because the defense is in the backfield so quickly. In this new version of Foster's 4-4, the defensive ends have little or no contain responsibility. This allows athletes likes James Gayle and Dadi Nicolas the fire the inside gap across the face of the tackles, and not surprisingly both have collected a large number of sacks and tackles for a loss. Luther Maddy and Derrick Hopkins are both having an excellent spring. By all accounts, Brandon Facyson and Donovan Riley are having a solid spring despite making some rookie mistakes, and we know what to expect from Jarrett, Fuller, and Bonner.

At the same time, secondary depth will continue to be a concern. Both safety positions are a rolled ankle away from potential disaster. Six of the top seven corners will be true freshmen or true sophomores, and Kyle Fuller may have rocked Trey Edmunds in Oklahoma, but Demetri Knowles beat him cleanly for a deep touchdown in one-on-one action, and we saw way too much of that last season.

Linebacker depth continues to worry me, even though the number two linebackers have performed well enough that the number one offense isn't running roughshod over them. Still, I'm not sold on Chase Williams, and we are not seeing dynamic playmaking from the other young linebackers. Unlike other positions on defense, there isn't much in the pipeline at the linebacker position, which is why it is critical that Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards stay healthy. Foster has flipped the rover and backer at the edge in the 4-4, and it will be interesting to watch and see if Edwards (who we know is excellent in space and pursuit) can deliver the dynamic pass rushing and edge contain that Bruce Taylor provided from that spot over the last couple of games in 2012. I will have a close eye on Edwards when I attend the Spring Game this weekend.

Defensive line has been a real head scratcher this spring. James Gayle, Dadi Nicolas, Derrick Hopkins, and Luther Maddy have been dominant. J.R. Collins is back in shape and has recovered his defensive end position for the time being, but Corey Marshall doesn't seem to be standing out and Tyrell Wilson is dinged up. We have Charley Wiles absolutely destroying Kris Harley in interviews and burying him on the depth chart, despite a scrimmage where he was dominant with the backups against the number one offense. Woody Baron, who I lauded for incredibly productivity in high school, but didn't expect to be an immediate contributor, is currently the top backup defensive tackle despite being only 260 pounds (and looking tiny on film.) Matt Roth is getting work with the twos, but he doesn't figure into the rotation, while the Ken Ekanem/Jarontay Jones talk has been non-existent (despite Ekanem forcing a fumble with a nice athletic play Saturday.) The defensive line MUST be dominant for the Hokies to have an ACC-championship caliber season, and that requires at least two groups of starter quality down linemen. Right now, it is hard to determine if Wiles is sending a bunch of messages, but if the current depth chart is indicative of performance, some guys who must be contributors are not pulling their weight right now, and that deeply worries me going into the matchup with Alabama.

Design of the Passing Game

While Hokie fans clamored for a significant upgrade in offensive line play in the offseason, a prevailing issue with Virginia Tech offenses over the past decade was poor design in the passing game. The structure of passing plays allowed teams to overload zones in certain areas of the field (see Florida State overloading the middle to stop the slants against Logan Thomas on the final drive of that heartbreaker last season.) At other times, secondary routes did not combine with primary routes to open up windows of space for the quarterback's first read. And (perhaps most frustrating for me), the quarterback's third and fourth reads were designed where the routes were completed before the quarterback had an opportunity to check down. That left the quarterback with limited options, namely a scrambling or throwing the football away. This failure in design took away half the field from our quarterbacks in the past, and limited their development. Logan Thomas will see an improvement in his mechanics only if he can throw in rhythm, and that means routes that develop at the same time as his progressions.

Upon watching the limited film that has been made available, it appears that Scot Loeffler's offense features a rhythm-based vertical passing game that forces the defense to defend the entire field. It isn't overly sophisticated, but the play design works to get the primary receiver open with a quick read, then the secondary routes develop to give Logan check downs in rhythm.

Let's take a look at Demetri Knowles big catch from the April 13th scrimmage: http://www.hokiesports.com/videos/player/?id=4784 (38 second mark). The video shows a sharp rocket from Logan Thomas to Knowles on a skinny post. Knowles catches it in stride. But, let's take a closer look.

Out of the huddle, the Hokies line up in a five receiver set with the ball on the right hash mark. The split end and Knowles line up close together to the wide side of the field. J.C. Coleman lines up wide to the right, with a flanker flexed just off the outside of the tight end. Pre-snap, Coleman motions back to the tailback position off to Logan's left. The motion allows Thomas to see how the defense adjusts, often indicating if they are in zone or man coverage.

At the snap, the flanker runs a short drag route at five yards. His job is to draw the attention of both linebackers and get them to jump his route. That pulls the linebackers shallow in their zones. Knowles runs a 12 yard skinny post against man coverage, while the other receiver to his side runs a hard go route. The man covering Knowles is on an island, and expects the linebacker depth to protect against the slant and skinny post. Logan reads the linebackers. If they drop back to undercut the post, Thomas throws the drag. If they jump the drag, Thomas throws the post. On this play, the flanker (who I believe is #83 Charlie Meyer) effectively sucks the linebackers with him on the drag, giving a clear lane for Logan to throw the skinny post. Logan makes the correct read, and hits Knowles perfectly.

Now, what happens if both options on the first read are covered? On the back side, Ryan Malleck delays briefly and runs a wheel route, while Coleman delays and releases to the right flat. The delay allows Logan to make his initial read. The drag route pulls the linebackers from right to left away from Malleck and Coleman. Malleck's route is vertical and draws a corner, leaving Coleman open in the flat for the checkdown. Either Malleck or Coleman will be open if Logan goes past his first read. This is significant progress from watching a back run a flare route completely outside the QB's line of vision, or a flanker running a 10 yard out on the back side and being out of his break before the quarterback makes his primary read. Now, the receivers have to prove that they can make plays within the framework of the offense.

Motion, Movement, and Purpose

One of the major comments that I have heard this spring is concern about significant pre-snap motion. Given how motion overkill seemed to derail offensive momentum in 2012, the apprehension is understandable. At the same time, closer examination shows that the pre-snap motion rarely changes the actual design of the play. In the running game, the Hokies will run three basic running plays out of a wide variety of formations and motion: the inside zone, the outside zone stretch, and the weak zone. Each can be run using a fullback or from an ace formation. On each style of play, regardless of formation, the rules for each blocker are essential the same, which reinforces consistent technique that was lacking last season.

The motion has two purposes in spring practice. First, single man motion allows the quarterback to see how the defense adjusts. This can tip the quarterback to the pass coverage, and a changing defensive front could open a weakness to be exploited by an audible. Understanding the coverage allows the quarterback to throw in rhythm, and Logan's performance this spring seems to indicate that these reads are becoming second-nature.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the motion gives the defense a look. Spring practice isn't just for the offense. The defense needs a crash course in communications, site adjustments, and assignments, especially in an attacking system where one gap fit being missed can result in a huge play surrendered. The offense, especially the second group against the ones, will use a variety of looks and formations to give the defense different looks to adjust to. It also ensures that the offensive players are paying attention to play calls, getting the correct alignment and motion, and are still remembering the assignment and snap count. I think that the Hokies will incorporate some motion when they head to the Georgia Dome, but I believe that it won't be used nearly as extensively as it has in practice.

Finding the Workhorse

The Hokies have featured three basic running plays from a variety of formations this spring, but the extensive use of full house formations and intense focus on establishing the zone series suggests to me that Scot Loeffler wants to run the football 30+ times a game. With ball control and staying ahead of the sticks premium goals, it is clear that Trey Edmunds should be the starting tailback. I am not even objective at this point. My eyes say he is the best option as he: finishes runs, gets yards after contact, and has the build to handle a heavy workload. His style of running is a perfect fit for the zone scheme. Almost every person who has seen him play live seems to be in agreement. Shane Beamer is again suggesting a potential three way battle for the starting job. This, despite Coleman essentially a non-factor this spring (he did break some tackles on a six yard run that was called back on a penalty, and may be dinged up.) Holmes has demonstrated a more physical running style, but he has still gotten caught running east-west for a loss.

Trey Edmunds should be the starting tailback on August 31st. My eyes are not lying to me. Thank you for the forum.

Tip of the Spear

No position has been more heavily scrutinized than the Hokie offensive line. I will be honest, despite my firm affirmation of Jeff Grimes effort to get the five best linemen into the starting lineup, I didn't expect to see as much fluidity in the lineup and volatility on the depth chart as we have seen this spring.

Brent Benedict has really looked like the leader of the group. Despite taking repetitions at both guard positions, Benedict has produced more dominant blocks than any other lineman. He had a nasty pancake block on Luther Maddy on a Trey Edmunds run in week one, and followed it up by crushing Dahmen McKinnon (23 second mark) from his new left guard spot on Michael Holmes touchdown run on Saturday.

Jonathan McLaughlin has been the biggest surprise, as he has currently supplanted Mark Shuman as the starting left tackle. Grimes has lauded McLaughlin's hard work and desire to learn, but the transition from three-star recruit to potential left tackle against a Nick Saban-coached defense is a major leap. McLaughlin has a massive frame with a huge wingspan, similar to Nick Becton. Unlike Becton, McLaughlin seems to absorb defenders. If he makes contact, the defender stays blocked. My biggest concern is McLaughlin's footwork. Working with the first team, he looked serviceable in pass protection, but his movement is labored. We also know that Bud Foster's defense places the best pass rusher over the right tackle, so McLaughlin has not faced James Gayle and Dadi Nicolas to see if those feet can handle an edge rush.

Mark Shuman's level of play seemed to really drop with his demotion. He really surprised me early in camp with his footwork in pass protection. Shuman excelled in pass pro, and may bounce back to win the starting job soon. However, he continues to struggle with the back side seal block on zone runs to the right. I will do a full series on the zone-stretch series following the end of spring practice, but in an offense predicated on creating a cut back seam for the running back, the back side blockers must be athletic enough to maintain contact with the defender and drive him east-west past their gap fit. If Shuman can't be better at this block, Jeff Grimes may be forced to play McLaughlin against Alabama.

Laurence Gibson survived a brief move to left tackle, where despite his reach and athleticism, he looked like a fish out of water. He looks much more comfortable on the right side. He has secured his position as a starter, but has been a bit too erratic in pass protection. He has the tools to be outstanding, but he has been thrown right into the fire matching up with Gayle and Nicolas on most downs.

Andrew Miller is an enigma for me. On film, he has struggled at both center and right guard when blocking a down lineman. At the same time, Grimes has lauded his leadership, effort, and ability to read defenses and make calls. Miller clearly will start at either center or guard, but the thought of an elite Alabama nose tackle eagled between Caleb Farris and Andrew Miller, regardless of who is at center and who is at guard, makes me awful nervous. Farris and Wang both seemed to be serviceable in the middle, but they don't get consistent push.

Depth is a serious worry on the offensive line. After Wang was hurt, Adam Taraschke got repetitions with the ones in the first scrimmage and looked as good as Wang or Farris. He still plays with pad level that is a little too tall (old habit from playing tackle), but he looks like a viable option in the middle. Matt Arkema has been in chateau bow-wow and really doesn't fit Grimes' profile for an interior lineman. Nick Acree struggled early in camp, and his career may be over due to injury. And, Augie Conte, who was regarded as the potential surprise starter somewhere coming out of the screen, has struggled mightily in his role as the foil to Gayle and Dadi's dominant spring. If tackle depth wasn't such an issue, I would anticipate that Conte will be moved back inside. He has the tools, but needs some seasoning.

Overlooked in all the offensive line discussion are the tight ends and big receivers. The limited film makes it difficult to judge the tight ends at the point of attack, but Ryan Malleck has been serviceable and Zack McCray has looked excellent blocking. Duan Perez-Means and McCray both have looked sharp on bootlegs, and he may be a couple years away, but Dakota Jackson has become a bit of a Paul Bunyan-esque character, also known as "the guy who is the loudest to tackle." Instead of using a tight end as H-Back, Loeffler has used his bigger wide receivers (DJ Coles and Joel Caleb) aligned in the backfield in an H-Back position. Loeffler has used the position to cut off backside penetration from the backside, which helps secure the cutback lane for the running back. Caleb has shown flashes of physical brilliance, but he is way too dainty when called upon to throw a block against the defensive front seven. The fullbacks are tough to comment on, as many of the players getting first team repetitions have numbers that are not listed on the roster. Shane Beamer may have had high hopes for Jerome Wright at the position, but he has not been effective blocking.

Right now, defining what a successful 2013 season means is a struggle. Is it a game in and game out demonstration of an aggressive attitude on both sides of the ball? Is it an ACC Coastal Division title? Is it an ACC Championship? Perhaps one coupled with a win over the Crimson Tide? For the Hokies to achieve any of these goals, it starts and ends with the offensive line. So far, the production up front makes few of these goals plausible, but I believe that several of the pieces are in place to make 2013 a success and a foundation for better things to come. Several players have one week of time to learn while cracking heads, and then three months of reading and doing individual work. If players, that are both floundering and surprising, want to take that step, the Spring Game is the stage to show off. I am looking forward to being there in person and getting my expectations set for the 2013 season.

Contact the editor about this post anytime by phone: (703) 646-1931 or mail: 3057 Nutley St Suite 633, Fairfax, Virginia 22031.

Comments

I'm liking this KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) offensive concept. Nothing fancy, just execute what will work. And run the damned ball!

Also, in Bud we Trust!

The U invented Swag, but UVA invented Smug.

VT '10, Born & Raised in the 804. Hokies, Keydets, Army Black Knights, NY Giants, NY Rangers, and ATL Braves.

This offensive line is either going to make or break this team. I am really hoping that they surprise me

Appreciate the hard work done by French! Looking forward to spring game analysis, especially since I'm not sure I'll get to see the game due to work.

In spring ball and fall camp with any team, the thought always crosses my mind, if defense outperforms offense (or visa versa), is one side underperforming because the other is that much better? If our defense is truly a dominant defense, is it unthinkable that our offense would have difficulty moving the ball? Its a double-edged sword of thought. That being said, it does sound like there are encouraging signs on offense. Could it be that part of our defensive struggles last year was having a defensive unit that wasn't really tested in practice? Iron sharpens iron.

Take the shortest route to the ball and arrive in bad humor.

The defense certainly isn't an easy scheme to play against given A) Foster's design works best against zone stretch offenses-see success against UVA and B) The variable stunting/slanting gap control 4-4 is a unique animal, similar to going against Georgia Tech's offense. It will be difficult to gauge important considerations like how the Hokie interior handles blocking a gigantic nose tackle, when VT doesn't really have the body on the roster that can copy that type of skillset.

Viva El Guapo

Also, I should have noted under the design of the pass play. It really only gives Logan Thomas two quick reads. At the snap, he looks left. If the linebackers are shallow, throw the skinny post. If they are deep, throw the drag. If neither is open, his head turns to the right. If the safety jumps Coleman on the delay, he can take a shot to Malleck on the wheel route deep (highest risk.) If the safety is deep (where he should be) he can dump the ball to Coleman on the safe play. Read 1, read 2, run or throw it away. That is step one. Step two comes with using his count, body, and eyes to deceive defenders rather than staring guys down (which is still happening.)

Viva El Guapo

So basically it's a high-low read?

In Beamer & Co. We Trust #Livefor32 #DecadeofDominance

Two high-low reads. One left, one right.

I will say this, his throw to Knowles to beat Fuller on a deep ball (I couldn't see if it was a double move or not) was an absolute thing of beauty. I didn't think Logan was as sharp with his mechanics as advertised in the first scrimmage, but he sure was on the money on Saturday.

Viva El Guapo

Someone emailed into the show last week to say that we should call Trey Edmunds "the judge" because he runs with authority. Yeah, let's make that happen.

Trey Edmunds will give you a free quote of pain. (referencing edmunds.com car buying)

@VTimHokie85
#BringBackTheTerrorDome

That was me who started that.

I support Logan Thomas and make no apologies for it.

Thanks for the write up as always! Can't wait to come down from NOVA for the spring game this weekend! woooo! Havent been back to Blacksburg since Logan ran in the game winning TD against Miami 2 years ago. Been way too long.

@VTimHokie85
#BringBackTheTerrorDome

Notice, Woody "The Little Ball of Hate" Baron is with the ones running down Knowles from behind. #QUICKNESS

Viva El Guapo

As an avid reader of this site and life-long Hokie, I appreciate the in-depth analysis TKP offers. But one thing drives me absolutely crazy...the constant lack of perspective and vision for our program that the administrators, fans and analysts here have.

This was an amazing article with an excellent analysis of our depth charts, but was completely ruined and fell victim to the same ole' stereotype that our fan base gets at the very end of the article.

The fact that we have to 'wait for the Spring Game to determine what a successful 2013 season is' is an absolute joke and frankly a reflection of disgrace to our program. Defining a successful season shouldn't be difficult or ever reconsidered in my opinion. Just because we have an off year doesn't mean we should reevaluate our program goals. Rebuilding 'a foundation of better things to come' is never an option, reloading should be the only thing that is acceptable.

Our goal, (which has been made as clear as mud) by a few of our program's leaders is to win the ACC Championship, play in a BCS bowl and compete for a national championship every year. Now while that may seem a bit of a realistic stretch this year after coming off last year's disappointments, the goal and vision should remain. This year's definition of success should be visible in every locker, every workout lifting station, every team meeting, every cheesy t-shirt the program makes, and topic of conversation at every local watering hole Blacksburg has to offer and should never be in question. The fact that it isn't -- and moreover that we have to determine what 'success' is -- should be a question of doubt to us all.

If we, as fans, don't know what our team goals are this year, then our coaches (new and old) don't know them, our administration can't fund them and our players achieve them. If our goals were so clearly stated by the beautiful (albeit empty) trophy case overlooking the practice field...shouldn't everything else echo that?

I'm not saying that any of us here, analysts included, can impose the correct goal and vision for our beloved program...but for us to question our own short-sighted and immediate goals for this year to me reflects on our disjointed leaders atop this organization. The ultimate goal should never vary from year to year nor change in the wake of a disappointing season. It should be echoed by a commitment to build the finest facilities (see our over-extended Rector Field House), ability to attract top quality recruits year in and year out (elite talent almost always leaves the state), hire and retain a top-tiered coaching staff (our recent offensive staff changes hardly moves any needles in the national football fraternity), and an administration committed to spending money to fund all of these things (Weaver -- do I even really need to go there?).

If we have to wait until the end of April to make a goal list for the season, then we've already fallen short of it. Bottom line...when anyone arrives on campus in Tuscaloosa they know their goal. We don't.

I respectfully disagree. Football is a muscle memory driven athletic endeavor. To expect a flawed football team (and this is a flawed team) that has been built under the pretense of a flawed offense to just work harder and come out the other side as a national champion isn't fair to those kids and the staff. I want to see the Spring game to set my expectations. Even with the flaws, if you look at the schedule, Virginia Tech should win the ACC Coastal Division. At the same time, with any struggles to adjust to a new system, a key injury here or there (which they have already suffered with Exum) or a bad matchup, dreams of even an ACC championship season can go up in smoke.

This is a ground zero year, and we forget that because of the success of the defense and the promise that Logan Thomas has. 2013 is about establishing a compete level on offense that matches the defense and adding the professionalism and attention to detail that has been missing from that offense. Step 2 is landing an SEC caliber recruiting class, which is possible this cycle. Step 3 is landing second tier recruits which fit your system.

IF those things happen, you have an opportunity to compete for a national championship. Build the program. That is what Nick Saban did at Alabama. It took several years to put get the players, teach the system, and build the foundation. For the first time since 2005, I can see the Hokies taking the same steps. Filling the trophy case is the goal, but filling it this year, in the midst of all this change, with so many potential question marks, I think is unfair.

And, frankly, I may rant and rave on here about National titles, but it doesn't just take elite work, great recruiting, and genius play calling to win a National title. You need a great deal of luck. We scoff at repeated ACC titles. That used to mean something, and it never failed to amaze me how many people in the fan base crapped all over that accomplishment. I think an ACC title this season would be one hell of a year, and will lead to bigger and better things.

Viva El Guapo

A short and sweet way to agree with you both: In our minds we always plan for a national championship every year. We look at the schedule and think " if we just win this game (or 2) we could go undefeated. But we always understand that we have weaknesses. We respect our team and we'll take their best. Even if it's not a national championship. It will come one day

I guarantee you that when we #BEATBAMA all of Hokie Nation will then expect MNCG contention.

Totally agree with french. You can not expect to reload, particularly on offense, with a faulty foundation. Like a house you must first be sure that you have a sound foundation. Otherwise, making repairs to the house is just a waste of time.