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.